God’s Own Country is being called “a Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain,” but I don’t think that’s fair to either movie. Yes, Country has a gay male protagonist, a gay relationship figures into the plot, and it’s set in a rural landscape. But this isn’t a story in which being gay is an obstacle to be overcome: no one seems to care or even much notice that young farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor: Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program) likes guys. (Could that possibly be true in real-life Yorkshire farming communities? How marvelous if it were.) No, Johnny’s problem is that he is, like many young men these days, an overgrown child, completely lacking in self-awareness and decorum, and with only two emotional modes: petulant silence, or resentful rage. Johnny needs to do some serious growing up… and it looks like a budding romance with Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), the Romanian farm worker hired to help with the lambing season, may be the thing help him do that.
God’s Own Country would tell much the same story if Gheorghe were Georgina, and that’s wonderful: this is a romance first and primarily; it’s almost incidental that it happens to take place between two men. We’re clearly nowhere near a point at which LGBT issues are depoliticized, but here’s a little taste of what that happy future might feel like. An additional deliciousness: When the disparities of power and privilege across the gender divide are removed from what is, in the grand scheme, a rather familiar kind of love story, the unfairness of a few particular presumptions in our culture about gender roles is revealed. We’re all very used to the notion that it is the responsibility of women to help men grow up, and that is something that gets reflected onscreen in such a way that it reduces women to saintly helpmeets and men to childish brats. With two men making up the couple, though, we can have someone like Gheorghe, who is just a little older than Johnny but much more mature and much more in touch with his emotions. And we see that it’s not the clichéd love of a good woman that might make a man grow up — and maybe not even love at all, or only — but committing to an endeavor that promises to have a future, and a connection with another person that inspires self-reflection. So here’s a rare case of a movie that barely features any women becoming sneakily feminist, and a story all about men that is truly universal in the way that stories about men are always assumed to be, and almost never genuinely are.
There are lots more reasons why this first film from actor turned writer-director Francis Lee is lovely and amazing. As a portrait of life in a harsh, lonely place, Johnny’s story becomes a metaphor for how a tradition that is dying — the family farm — might survive if it can find ways to change. (In one small, telling moment, Gheorghe — who brings extensive experience from his own failed farm in Romania — tries to introduce Johnny to the idea of sheep’s-milk cheese, as a possible new venture that could keep the farm afloat. Johnny, who is still hasn’t grown out of his childish-brat phase, looks askance at it. And his grandmother, Deidre [Gemma Jones: Bridget Jones’s Baby, Hysteria], who still works on the farm, completely dismisses it.) The earthiness of life on a farm is echoed beautifully in Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship: the first time they have sex — it can hardly be called “making love” — it is animalistic, almost violent. There’s nothing warm or affectionate in it because Johnny doesn’t know how to be that way; he just moves on autopilot to satisfy his physical needs, without any seeming awareness of his emotional needs. The rawness of Johnny’s vulnerability becomes apparent when we learn that he was abandoned by his mother at a young age — his dad, Martin (Ian Hart: Urban Hymn, Dough) is still around, but he’s not doing well after a stroke — and Gheorghe’s attempts to teach him tenderness are rather slyly like how the older man cares for an orphaned lamb: slowly, tentatively, patiently, but with a little visceral, practical push if required.
With terrific, honest performances and a coarse visual beauty that doesn’t sentimentalize rugged land or rough-edged men, God’s Own Country arrives at a moment when independent British filmmaker is having something of a renaissance… and raises the bar going forward.