God’s Own Country | 2017 Sundance Film Festival Review
Gheorghe at the Farm: Lee’s Rustic Romantic Drama Hits the Requisite Notes
For those who have been yearning for a less angst-ridden and more contemporary version of something like Brokeback Mountain (2005), director Francis Lee achieves the same crowd pleasing tensions and titillations with his debut God’s Own Country. Charting the usual course of rustic repressions and romance following on the heels of a handsome stranger (here a rugged Romanian arriving in the middle-of-nowhere Yorkshire), Lee mixes some constrained motifs into a general sense of predictability in what plays like a less sensationalized and strenuous version of homosexuality in the hinterlands than we’re used to. Still, despite an impressively brooding silence between its expressive leads, most of the visual cues underscore the narrative beats a bit too prophetically for the film to seem either fresh or exciting.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) drowns his sorrows on a nightly basis to avoid dealing with his lonely existence on his family’s farm. His recently injured father (Ian Hart) was recently left crippled, leaving sole responsibility for the farm and a surly grandmother (Gemma Jones) to Johnny. Engaging in aggressive casual sex on the down low with young local men, who he curtly dismisses after he’s through with them, he becomes enamored with Ghoerghe (Alex Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker running from his own troubles, arriving to assist the Saxby’s with lambing season. His presence eventually forces Johnny to question some hard truths about who he is and what he wants.
Fortunately, Lee never seems to be pandering to the lowest common denominator, as is often the case in films labeled gay romance in English language films, where men look more like models than the personalities they’re supposed to be playing. The sexual chemistry between Saxby and Secareanu is even, at times, palpable, particularly during a climactic first union where the two men violently tear one another’s clothes off in the mud, speckled in the juices of terra as they comingle with the elements. But while Lee may chart the progression of their attraction logistically, there’s something to be lacking in both their characterizations, particularly with Ghoerghe, who will ultimately make a decision which God’s Own Country can’t quite sell us on. Still, the young men’s tenderness is realized in their affinity for the lives around them. An early stillborn calf is seen as a metaphor for Johnny’s inability to control his unenthusiastic fate, while Ghoerghe’s TLC when it comes to saving a runt lamb proves his knack for teasing life and affection out of things and situations others believe futile.
Fleetingly realized racial stereotypes concerning Ghoerghe’s nationality are smoothed over once their sexual relationship reaches full throttle (previously, Johnny would taunt the foreigner with the demeaning epithet ‘gyp’), a specter resurfacing briefly during an altercation in a local dive bar in a sequence eclipsed by a more salacious dramatic climax. Some well-attenuated supporting turns assist in bolstering the dire, back-breaking tone of Johnny’s life at home. Character actor Ian Hunt gives an empathetic performance as a man whose body has been hobbled by age and tragedy (a situation which recalls the Kate Nelligan/Christopher Cazenove dynamic in Eye of the Needle, 1981) while Gemma Jones give a reserved and cold turn as a weary grandmother. One of her more powerful sequences involves a startling discovery on laundry day, bookended by a sequence equally cued by emotion rather than dialogue. Of the two lesser known leads, Secareanu is given more room to impress as the mature, graceful loner Ghoerghe.
While God’s Own Country tends to sweep more problematic tangents under the rug in order to lead us into the safe-net of a happy romantic ending, Lee also avoids gross sentiment, aiming instead for a message extolling the possibility of hope for a fulfilling, gay relationship set in the kinds of rural climes where ignorance, repression, and eventual tragedy usually reign supreme.
Reviewed on January 21st at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – World Dramatic Competition Programme. 104 Min.