God's Own Country (MA). Director: Francis Lee. Starring: Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart. 104 minutes
The UK's Yorkshire moors seem like an ideal setting for a crude yet beautiful film about two shepherds falling in love. What's even better is a director bringing to the film his own history of such a place, adding the depth of familiarity with both the land and those who live off it. Such is the case with one-time Yorkshire farm boy Francis Lee's directorial debut, God's Own Country.
Johnny (O'Connor), a troubled young man on the verge of full blown alcoholism, is faced with the difficult task of near single-handedly running his family's farm. His widower father Martin (Hart) is ill, and Johnny and his grandmother Gemma (Jones) must handle most of the work of running a farm and a household.
It's a monotonous daily grind, set against beautiful Northern England countryside — getting up early, fixing fences, delivering lambs and calves, battling cold, mud and disease, pausing to vomit up last night's booze. Johnny seeks out a mix of binge-drinking and casual sexual encounters to help the days go by. The loneliness of his situation is palpable, as is his growing emotional estrangement from Gemma and Martin, who watch on with a mix of concern and anger.
This holding pattern is disrupted when the handsome and pensive Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Secareanu) arrives to help Johnny and his father run the farm. Johnny's customary impulse to regard his own same-sex attraction with disdain kicks into gear, as he is confronted by the quiet attractiveness of Gheorghe. This sets the scene for a rocky start.
It is perhaps analogous that Gheorghe approaches lambing and calving (a focal point of life on the farm) with patience and care, coaxing the cooperation of the mothers and bringing stillborn lambs to life with confidently executed care. Gheorghe's approach to the highly-repressed Johnny is the same; a respect for intense vulnerability, and a depth of love that is capable of bringing an ailing man (or lamb) back to life.
As lovely as that sounds, and it is, it does not make for a 'feel good' love story. The film is very graphic, in terms of sex scenes as well as the portrayal of animal birth and death; deeply visceral and at times quite dark — not recommended for the faint of heart.
"While Gemma and Martin grapple with the idea that Johnny is gay, they do not necessarily struggle against it, or impose their concerns onto him directly. To them, what matters primarily is Johnny's happiness."
The financial hardship of Johnny's family colours every scene. While working to repair a fence far from the farmhouse, Johnny and Gheorghe subsist for days on single-serve instant noodles. Meanwhile Gemma ceaselessly washes clothes, cleans or prepares humble meals — very little, if any, leisure time is available. There is a quiet dignity in these long, hard working days. Yet the stress of such a life is exemplified in the physical toll it has taken on Martin, who fears Johnny will meet the same fate.
Foremost of the themes, though, is the difficulty of living as a gay man in a culture or family where it is not readily accepted. While Gemma and Martin grapple with the idea that Johnny is gay, they do not necessarily struggle against it, or impose their concerns onto him directly. To them, what matters primarily is Johnny's happiness; his sexual preference is secondary.
More interesting still is the fact the issue is handled with zero reference to religion, despite the perhaps ironic title of the film. The conflict surrounding Johnny's homosexuality appears to be culturally based; how this plays out suggests that when it comes to sexuality, culture can be flexible where dogmatic religion cannot.
As Johnny's unexpected Romanian lover receives him 'warts and all', his binge-drinking winds down and we witness a sort of ceasefire in the war he has long been waging against himself. This lays the foundation for Johnny's sexuality to be confronted and accepted by those who love him.
The interweaving of fraught tensions within this story are handled expertly by director Lee, and the performances by O'Connor, Secareanu, Jones and Hart are all first-rate. It is a gritty tale, wholly lacking in sentimentality, but ever-moving towards a faint but distinct light at the end of the tunnel.
Megan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
01 September 2017
Thanks Megan for the great overview. Look forward to the seeing the movie. Without any intended criticism, may I, as a gay man, bring attention to you phrase: "his sexual preference is secondary." The word "preference" suggests that LGBTIQ people make a decision with regard to their sexuality, but the reality is that it is a given, it is not something that we wake up one day and decide, any more than I'm sure heterosexual persons do. People do not decide what colour skin, hair, eyes etc., they will be born with, or would prefer. It is a given. For some, including myself, sexuality is God-given, not a preference. All part of the beauty, likeness and image of God. "Sexual orientation' seems a better expression today, until we are able to do away with the need for such things.
01 September 2017
Ditto to everything Andrew says. Beth
03 September 2017
Thanks for that feedback Anthony, and I agree with everything you said. My use of the term 'sexual preference' was entirely accidental/ unconscious and I would agree that the term 'sexual orientation' is much more appropriate. Apologies if I caused offence, I will be sure to remember that in future! Cheers, Megan
04 September 2017
Without intent to criticise Megan or Anthony's comments either - it would be good to get to a point in this debate where it didn't matter if sexuality orientation/preference was inherent from birth, nurture/nature, genetic, hormonal or however we describe it. It's not a disease, and despite what official Catholic doctrine describes as an "intrinsic disorder', I believe it's a positive thing. So if being LGBTI is such a positive thing, what's wrong with embracing it as a choice? The definitive answer to this might be akin to the search for alien life or the God particle - but all this talk about sexual orientation being a fixed thing whereby we need to find a gene to blame makes it sound like a disease. I as a gay man have no problem embracing my sexuality as a choice.