Harry Lister Smith
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
God's Own Country
ou can smell the wet of the English countryside in God’s Own Country (2017), a hushed romantic drama. Mostly confined to a middle-of-nowhere, Yorkshire farm, it stars an outstanding Josh O’Connor as Johnny, an embittered 24-year-old whose day-to-day existence mostly consists of mindless, pasture-bound tasks. There used to be a time in which he wasn’t always so saddled with despair – toward the movie’s beginning, an old friend says hello and recalls the way things used to be – but this monotonous life has gotten him so down, pleasure seems a distant memory.
Guilt keeps him from trying to escape. He lives on the farmstead with his partially paralyzed father, Martin (Ian Hart), and his austere grandmother, Deidre (Gemma Jones), and their inability to not do a whole lot else besides simple menial tasks has essentially made Johnny the property’s main man. He can’t leave, unless the people who raised him figure out something too.
To ease his existential torment, he regularly gets fucked up in bars and partakes in casual, meaningless sex with any man who shows the slightest interest in him. He knows he can’t keep living like this. But since the idyll of a new day doesn’t seem plausible at the moment, his insalubrious forms of self-care, paired with a consciously inured exterior that makes any stranger think he’s just fine on his own, will have to do.
This changes. Aware of Johnny’s struggles, Martin and Deidre hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a taciturn, Romanian migrant worker, to help him attend to everyday chores. Johnny and Gheorghe butt heads at first. Because he's attracted to the latter, Johnny attempts to hide his feelings by hurling ethnic insults whenever there’s a gap in the conversation, trading hospitality for brusqueness. But after working together for a handful of days, the sexual tension between the two grows too great. What begins an antagonistic professional relationship turns into a tenderhearted romance that just might be the panacea for all Johnny’s woes.
Delicate and observant, the film works as something of a companion piece to the other significant gay movie of 2017, Call Me By Your Name: Both involve young men uncovering unacknowledged, or at least undernourished, facets of their sexuality, and both showcase a poignant romance that will alter (and maybe even partially define) the lives of the men who experience it.
But God’s Own Country, written and directed by the newcomer Francis Lee, isn’t as sturdily defined by potent bittersweetness. Here, the relationship is not of the evanescent sort – it is the kind that has the potential to last, which amplifies the feature’s emotional impact.
The film takes on a rather proverbial romantic storyline, and Johnny’s arc – the classic hardened man becomes a golden-hearted one cliché – will in no doubt ring a bell for anyone who’s seen a movie featuring a grump of a protagonist. But we don’t think about familiarity: Lee is such an incisive filmmaker that the completed product comes across as a kind of winningly staid slice of life, not a trite recapitulation of something we’ve seen before.
Revelations about these characters rarely stem from exchanges of dialogue; they primarily come from percipiently constructed scenes and telling visual details, underlining Lee’s almost unusual giftedness. This is among the few films I’ve seen in which sex scenes help define the characters: the first is rough and passionate, but the second is tender and vulnerable, visibly marking Johnny’s transition from emotionally ungiving misanthrope to feeling and delicate lover.
Clothing is fundamental to the characterizations, too. There’s a sequence wherein Deidre irons her son’s button-down shirt shortly after he has a massive stroke, and, in a burst of excruciating sadness, cannot help herself for snatching it up and frantically wiping away her tears. This moment summarizes the familial dynamic: often defined by unfeeling routine, but still basally caring.
For much of the film, Gheorghe wears the same speckled, crimson-red sweater. Sometimes the article signifies an attachment to his home, an extension of himself. But in a later scene, it becomes his essence when Johnny feebly puts it on during a period of longing.
When characters aren’t wearing clothes, they do not appear nude but naked, rather, exposed and no longer able to build a wall around themselves. The sex scenes partially exemplify this, but what stands out to me more is the scene in which Deidre and Johnny bathe Martin. It is in that sequence that we truly understand why these people, despite being so dysfunctional so much of the time, are so dedicated to one another: necessity, sure, but also genuine care. Much of the film is defined by the romantic plot, but the familial rapport is key too.
Romance, though, is God’s Own Country’s strong suit, and while Lee’s developing of it is shrewd and compassionate, it is the chemistry between its leads – so exteriorially distinct – that help make the movie the moving work that it is. The finale feels particularly right, somehow avoiding wrong-headed schmaltz.
What we have in Lee is a sagacious and gentle filmmaker, and if it’s any indication, God’s Own Country will mark the beginning of a worthwhile career. So many debuting writer-directors simply show promise, their resiliency yet to be determined. With Lee, however, there’s an unspoken understanding that this is almost a surefire master: He’s a preternaturally detailed and smart filmmaker, his talents reminiscent of realist artists like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. What will come next is up in the air, but I’m certain Lee’s sophomore effort will be just as sharp and soul-stirring as this first foray. A-
April 9, 2018
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.