Francis Lee’s tender, heartfelt debut film is as sweet a love story as you’ll ever see, bolstered by two terrific young performances and Lee’s sensitive, deliberate script.
In a year (and awards season) where Luca Guadagnino’s lovely Call Me By Your Name fills the ‘queer love story’ quota for the arthouse crowd’s attention, it can be hard for other films tackling broadly similar subject matter to stand out, regardless of their quality. It’s a shame, really, because Francis Lee’s debut feature, God’s Own Country, fits snugly alongside Guadagnino’s film as a deliberately paced, strongly performed, deeply sensitive tale of gay first-love stories. It may not have the flash and academic sophistication of Call Me, but its working-class emotion and admirable delicacy make it one to watch.
Based loosely on the writer/director’s life, God’s Own Country follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young twentysomething lad helping his parents (Ian Hart, Gemma Jones) look after their sheep farm in Yorkshire. It’s a lonely existence, filled with parental tension (his father Martin’s a right battle axe, an injury leaving him so crippled he must hobble around on two canes) and long stretches of boredom. To cope with it, Johnny is locked in a self-destructive cycle of driving into town, getting piss drunk, hooking up with random boys, passing out, throwing up, and starting the process all over again.
His situation changes, however, when Martin hires a handsome, swarthy Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help look after the sheep during lambing season. Forced to work together on the farm, Johnny and Gheorghe start a confrontational relationship (Johnny won’t stop calling him a ‘gypsy’) that soon turns into something more.
In a lot of ways, God’s Own Country plays out like a Yorkie Brokeback Mountain – the freedom and isolation of the wilderness offering a safe space for two otherwise hypermasculine men to play out their feelings, and the tension that results. However, Lee’s astoundingly assured direction for a first feature keeps us tethered to Johnny and Gheorghe’s story, playing out their drama with a kind of documentary-like immediacy that reminds you of the works of Ken Loach. Surrounding his characters with the washed-out overcast Yorkshire hills, Lee effortlessly evokes the crippling isolation and loneliness that Johnny experiences.
None of this would work half as well without its performances, which are tremendous breakouts for both of its stars. O’Connor’s eyes are a deep well of yearning, while his shrugged shoulders perform a world-weariness meant to keep his pain at a distance. Secareanu, as the more reserved of the two, imbues Gheorghe with a quiet strength, a stability to which Johnny is clearly drawn. Whether in their quieter moments of intimacy, or the explicit, yet subdued sex scenes (take that, the comparatively prudish Call Me By Your Name), Lee’s leads draw you into their furtive love affair. Hart and Jones also turn in excellent, nuanced work in strong supporting performances, turning what could be obstinate obstacles for their leads into sympathetic people just as alienated by their lifestyle as Johnny.
For some, the film can be challenging – American audiences (like myself) might have to throw on subtitles for the especially thick Yorkshire and Romanian accents of its characters. (Funny enough, Johnny becomes more decipherable the more he sobers – and grows – up.) The pace is a bit languid, but deliberate; get ready for lots of idle sheep-watching, Lee effectively throwing you into the tedium of farm life that upsets Johnny so. However, once Johnny and Gheorghe’s flirtation begins to intensify, the film grabs hold of your attention and never lets go. By the time you reach the film’s final, tear-jerking minutes, you’ll understand why it’s one of the most lovingly rendered romances of the year.
God’s Own Country begins playing on January 26th at the Gene Siskel Film Center.