God’s Own Country Review
Ever since this film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, film critics have, unfortunately, been quick to label it the “British Brokeback Mountain.” Sure, many appropriate comparisons can be made, but the films are also more different than you’d gather at first glance.
We join Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young and perpetually drunk man who’s failing to step up to assist his mother (Gemma Jones) and father (Ian Hart) with daily farm duties. His father’s health is deteriorating and, as the only capable man around the house, he’s been called upon to take over the reins of the family business.
To assist Johnny with the lambing season, his mother hires the only man who responded to her classified ad for the position: Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian transplant and skilled farmhand. At first, Johnny takes great pleasure in putting the Gheorghe in his place, indulging his love for alcohol and hurling insults (“Gypsy!”) as he observes Gheorghe’s tireless and honest work ethic.
Gheorghe soon grows impatient and demands they work alongside each other respectfully, which reveals itself in a stoicism rife with homoerotic tensions. Their developing relationship, first infused with aggression, soon evolves into an enduring but embattled love.
The resemblances between this film and Ang Lee‘s Brokeback Mountain (2005) are readily apparent. What’s not immediately apparent is the passion project that this clearly is for first-time director Francis Lee (no relation). In a post-screening Q&A, Lee revealed that the film had been shot in his childhood home on land that his family had owned for decades. It’s distinctly British and brings with it a more accepting (in Lee’s words, “celebratory”) attitude toward the love that develops between these two men. Johnny’s mother and father quite stunningly accept it without much reservation as they are more concerned with the father’s rapidly declining health than they are about their alcoholic son they had all but given up on. After all, the frequency of his drinking has declined; he’s more helpful around the house; his spirits are brighter than they’ve been in years. “What reservations should they have?” Lee seems to be asking. Theirs is a love in plain sight.
Another element that sets this film apart from its well-known American counterpart are the several startling, but oddly magnetic, scenes in which Gheorghe interacts with the sheep, particularly while assisting them during the birthing process. He is, at heart, a nurturer, and the tenderness with which he approaches the animals under his care is the same tenderness with which he approaches Johnny, who’s animalistic in many ways. This relationship dynamic is powerfully present in one of the most beautifully-illustrated love scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Without speaking a word, Gheorghe calmly manages to teach Johnny how to connect on an emotional level, soothing him with comforting touch in much the same way he comforts the sheep. It’s unexpected, at first a bit unsettling, but simple in its emotional power.
It’s not a movie about gay love, it’s a movie about love. Let us not pigeonhole this film like its counterpart was twelve years ago.
God’s Own Country is screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in the competitive World Dramatic competition category and has yet to be acquired for distribution.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute