In most years we’re lucky if one gay-themed movie could be classed as a crossover success, but in the UK we had two released at cinemas within weeks of one another last autumn – Call Me By Your Name and the homegrown God’s Own Country. Although the former is now a quadruple Oscar nominee and the latter isn’t (although it did score a BAFTA nomination), as God’s Own Country star Josh O’Connor has said, that’s more to do with the lack of resources for a major Oscar push than because the movie isn’t good.
God’s Own Country follows young farmer Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who lives on a remote smallholding in Yorkshire with his recently disabled father (Ian Hart) and his taciturn grandmother (Gemma Jones). With most of his schoolfriends having gone to university or moved somewhere bigger, Johnny is leading a lonely existence. He has started drinking heavily and having occasional, casual sex with guys – although with no conception that it could be more than just one-off sex. With the lambing season on its way, they decide to hire someone to help, which brings Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to the farm.
An attraction grows between the men, but Johnny isn’t sure what to do about it, even though it may be the only thing that can stop his existence growing ever smaller.
As a farm boy myself I was very intrigued to see God’s Own Country. At the beginning I was a little concerned, as it felt like it was pushing some of the more insidious stereotypes about rural people, and becoming the farm equivalent of the sort of British film that confuses social realism with layering misery upon misery. There’s a slightly old-fashioned ‘it’s grim up north’ feel about parts of the beginning of the film, which threaten to bring to mind the (Monty Python) Four Yorkshiremen sketch.
Writer/director Francis Lee grew up on a farm himself and it’s clear he’s not writing from a place of ignorance, but he also sets up a situation that is far from typical, and grimmer, than most modern British farms, even for those growing up gay in the middle of nowhere. Johnny is presented as someone who cannot conceive you can be gay in the rural world he’s living in, but things have changed in the last couple of decades and it’s unlikely even someone like Johnny could be that oblivious.
There’s also a tendency to show some of the less pleasant aspects of country life in ways that will have a few people cringing. While showing the differences makes sense, in particular the sometimes raw relationship to nature, it perhaps suggests an everyday harshness to life that’s more particular to this family than it’s made to seem.
While these issues could have completely ruined the film, God’s Own Country is astute enough to ensure many of the problems that Johnny and his family face emerge from their characters, rather than just being victimised by the world. Johnny in particular does have plenty of issues to deal with, but he’s also immature and seemingly incapable of expressing the emotions roiling inside him. It’s something he’s learned from his father, who rather than dealing with the frustrations of his mobility problems following a stroke, barks orders at his son and belittles him in a bid to maintain control.
The film really comes to life once Gheorghe arrives on the farm. While Josh O’Connor has been rightfully praised for his turn as Johnny, it is arguably Alec Secareanu who gives the stronger performance. His character may not be dealing with quite as many issues as Johnny but it only through his stability and love that the young farmer’s journey makes sense. Indeed, without Secareanu’s quiet gravitas and passion, Johnny would risk coming across as rather annoying, and at times a little like a self-obsessed teenager. For example, when they first have sex while rolling around in the mud, it could easily have seemed pretty stupid, but it is Secareanu who grounds it and helps temper the ugliness and violence of how Johnny is expressing himself.
It becomes a movie that pulls the audience in with its strong, beating heart. Although it still has a tendency to take things further than they really need to go, it could easily have come across as far more melodramatic than it does if it didn’t have so much empathy for the characters. It cares about what happens to Johnny, accepting that in some respects he is his own worst enemy, but both Gheorghe and the movie want the best for him. It’s also a film that carefully avoids the trap many earlier gay movies have fallen into, by realising that you can present tragedy and difficulty in a gay-themed film, without insinuating that homosexuality itself is inherently tragic.
Without saying too much about the ending, seasoned gay film watchers may well assume it’s heading in a direction it adeptly manages to avoid. Indeed, it manages to be pull everything together without seeming trite or convenient, largely because the conclusion is predicated on real character growth and change, and a belief that ultimately there is hope if you’re willing to do what it takes.
The disc comes with a selection of alternate and deleted scenes, some of which are quite intriguing. With many you can see why they were removed as they were either not strictly necessary or could have been ambiguous, but they also add interesting dimensions to the characters.
Overall Verdict: Heartfelt, sometimes sexy and sometimes raw, God’s Own Country may flirt close to melodrama and have a rather blinkered view of modern farming, but few films care about their characters so much, or get the audience wanting the best for them quire so strongly.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac