God’s Own Country – movie review

by James Robins / 07 September, 2017

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An emotional education: from left, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu) and Johnny (Josh O’Connor).

Exquisite acting is a feature of a strong directorial debut that avoids sentimentality.

Bring a brolly to see God’s Own Country, for its first half is a deluge of fluids. It opens with Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), an adult son of farming parents living on the isolated Yorkshire moors, retching into a toilet. Out in the cow sheds, he takes a leak and spits again. He trudges despondently through thick mud, pulls lambs from ewes and sinks too many warm pints to forget it all.

Rank as this sounds, these sensations give the film, which is Yorkshire native Francis Lee’s directorial debut, an undeniably authentic elemental patina. Life here is bitter, and Johnny is bitterness personified.

He’s also gay. Discreetly, though. His intimate connections are forceful couplings in a horse float, connections given a certain piquancy by the preceding scene, in which he dons a plastic sleeve to inspect the rear end of a cow. Someone later calls him “a real pain in the arse … and not in a good way”.

All this has to soften somehow. There must be amelioration. It comes in the form of Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), a handsome Romanian worker who arrives to take on some of Johnny’s workload.

At first, there is no warmth between them. But one night on the moors, desires are unleashed – a sex scene confronting not for its explicitness but for its heavy, grappling intensity.

Johnny undergoes an emotional education at Gheorghe’s hand, first learning how to hold another man tenderly, then to love the land to which he’s shackled, then again to love his father who’s had a stroke – an education made complete when Johnny’s sallow, gaunt face melts slowly into a wry grin.

Every performance here is exquisite, and Lee’s direction is meditative without becoming languid. Comparisons have inevitably been made with Brokeback Mountain, and although they have in common a theme of threatened masculinity, there isn’t a whisper of homophobia to be found in God’s Own Country – or any sunlit soppiness.

It’s a vastly superior work, made all the more affecting by its rough edges and lack of sentimentality.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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