God's Own Country
2017, NR, 104 min. Directed by Francis Lee. Starring Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 29, 2017
The English county of Yorkshire can be astoundingly beautiful, but there's nothing pastoral about lambing season. It's all hands up a ewe, pulling the lamb out by its hooves in a breech birth. The first moment of farming shown here is a dead calf, the fault of the young John Saxby (O'Connor) who was off getting drunk as the only way to deal with the tedium of country life. His regular cycle of booze, fighting with his parents (Hart and Jones, tragic and tender in their own ways), and rough sex with strangers in the back of cattle trucks, is devastated when they hire a Romanian farmhand, Gheorghe (Secareanu). But the devastation could be the rubble upon which his new life is built.
"You can be a right pain in the arse, John Saxby, and not in a good way," one old friend cajoles him. His sexuality is an open secret, but if there's one truth to farm life it's that no one cares what happens on someone else's fields. Yet O'Connor catches the bitterness and terseness of a man caught between his inheritance and his own miserable personality. It's not like Gheorghe is that much different. God's Own Country is not the kind of coming-out movie where repressed characters suddenly end up EDM club kids. John and Gheorghe are drawn to each other because they are, in the language of the region, miserable buggers who value a hard day building dry stone walls, and would rather stare into their pint than have a conversation.
What writer/director Lee (himself from hill farming stock) catches is that their passion is welded in pragmatism. Homophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, and callousness all float beneath the surface here, but as quiet subtext. This is the silence of the hills, where three words are volumes.
The title is the common nickname for Yorkshire (think of it as the Texas of Britain: big, wild, and thoroughly convinced of its own genius). The obvious comparison is to Brokeback Mountain. However, there is not the sense of Western Puritanism that pervades that precursor: God cares not whether a sheep or a sheep farmer lives or dies, nor do the rugged Dales. Just as Call Me by Your Name is easier to love because both its location and its stars are far more photogenic, God's Own Country is craggy and hardy, off-putting and blunt. But that's its reality. These are toughened men, who see borrowing a pair of gloves when their hands are cold as unacceptable weakness.
Be forewarned: As graphic as the sex can be, if you don't want a sometimes bloody lesson in what it takes to get a sheep to adopt an orphaned lamb, avert your eyes quickly. Lee's script depicts the hardness of the land and the people and the life, but is truly about the world opening up for John on his own terms. When he finally looks out on the beauty of the Dales, and away from the mud on his feet, it is like the sky cracks. Earnest, honest, accurate, and unrelenting, this is the true romance of the countryside, dung-splattered boots and all.