Directorial indie debuts are packing some real punches in 2017. In the wake of outings from Hope Dickson Leach and William Oldroyd comes Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, a rural romance of cold winds and warm hearts. Another in a pleasing tide of British features, here is a film of equal profundity and assured cinematography.
Set in Yorkshire, an English county so beloved that it is locally said to be God’s favoured creation, God’s Own Country tells the story of a farming family on their last legs and the Romanian immigrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), who is employed to provide some much needed aid. On the farm are Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), his nan Deirdre (Gemma Jones) and his stroke-crippled father Martin (Ian Hart). Whereas Johnny, it is implied, was once full of optimism and laughter, now he is reduced to rough and passing sexual encounters, weeknight drinking at the local pub and mornings greeted with vomit and all types of bodily fluid. He’s been left behind as friends set off to University and bright futures and is painfully aware of the face. When Gheorghe arrives he accepts the help reluctantly, and with a bitter, xenophobic tongue (‘gyppo’).
There’s distinct overlap in the film’s opening third with both Dickson Leach’s The Levelling and Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth. Sparse scenery is matched by a sparser still soundtrack of billowing wind, rain and livestock bleats. There’s a comparable sense for isolation too. Lee opens with a bleakly, wuthering image of the family home, with just a solitary light grasping through the fog. Hereafter, a sequence of shots distance Johnny from the world and folk around him, cast into a realm blur to his ocular focus. The camerawork is rough and ready, befitting of its muse. Throughout the film, in fact, Lee communicates with a visual language in his script, as much as any penned dialogue. Thus, ‘pre-Gheorghe’ we witness Johnny being bullied by his father into killing a poorly-born calf; whilst post, the newcomer is seen to deliver the new life of a lamb into the world.
Likeness in God’s Own Country to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain goes far beyond its protagonists’ sexuality and director’s surname. With lambing season underway, Johnny and Gheorghe travel up the crag to an old farmhouse to camp and watch over the sheep. As with the former film, the masculinity of homosexual relationships is explored here as a fine line between brutality and intimacy is gradually eroded and crumbling drystone walls are rebuilt. That said, Wyoming and Yorkshire offer quite different states of weather and dialect – here: perfectly regional.
The film’s final act is more conventional but little worse for it. All round strong and understated performances allow a heartfelt realism to come to the fore, not least due to their having been directed by Lee: a man writing from his own life experiences, growing up on a farm.
One more brilliantly assured directorial debut for the year, God’s Own Country is a wonderful showcase for Yorkshire as a county and film industry. It is a film about finding beauty and tenderness within even the most hostile environments, situations and, crucially, individuals.