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Categories: Movie Reviews

Matthew Wilson reviews God’s Own Country from the Edinburgh Film Festival and finds notes of Ang Lee in up-and-coming director Francis Lee.

God’s Own Country has been described as Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain which I think does both films a disservice. Brokeback was a period piece, dealing with the love of two men in a society that hated them, whereas God’s Own Country tackled a more personal story about the love between two men when one of them hates themselves.

Set during spring on a Yorkshire farm, the film finds Johnny (Josh O’Conner), only son to Martin (Ian Hart), a farmer struggling to cope after a stroke and grandson to Deidre (Gemma Jones), who’s too busy looking after Martin to do farm work. With Johnny getting hammered every night and numbing away with casual sex, Martin hires Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu) to help around the farm. Johnny is initially hostile towards Gheorghe but Gheorghe makes it clear he won’t have any of it.

When the two men have to spend several days away to mend a broken wall and tend to the sheep, a mutual attraction builds between them until they eventually have sex, but where Johnny is happy to keep it as a one-time thing, Gheorghe shows an intimacy that’s been missing from Johnny’s life and the two form the beginning of a relationship. However, with Martin suffering another stroke, Gheorghe’s visa running out and Johnny’s own self-destruction working against them, the two men realise that their happy ending needs to be earned.

This is definitely a character piece more than a drama, the moments you think that’ll be huge play out with a minor fanfare which is to the film’s credit because doing so would put the focus on the relationship between the two men when in fact the focus is on the two men in the relationship. It’s not an easy watch, for some people this might because it is admittedly a slow burn but for most it’ll be because of how the characters interact, particularly Johnny, but it makes for a far more interesting viewing.

While the focus is on Johnny and Gheorghe, Johnny’s parents both do a fine job, Hart showcases a great deterioration to Martin after two strokes, the first before the movie that renders him weak and unsteady without the use of two walker sticks and very angry because of it, the second during the movie which paralyses the left side of his face and leaves him in a much more vulnerable and yet calmer state because of it. Deirdre isn’t giving as much of a showy part but her presence is felt all the same, there’s tension between her and Johnny that might stem from the fact that she’s his grandmother filling in for his mother but it’s never brought up as a major issue.

The stars of the film are its two leads, both relative newcomers to the scene; O’Conner has the bigger role, from the opening scene of Johnny throwing up in the toilet we see this is not a man in the right place. From there the film paints a broken picture, when Johnny’s not hammered he’s throwing himself as sex with random men and when he’s conscious enough to talk he’s aggressive and contradictory, complaining to his friends about having to stay in the real world while they go off partying while later complaining to his dad that he’s stuck on a farm while his friends are partying in the real world. The arrival of Gheorghe is the catalyst for his redemption but not without some major soul-searching, being that close and that intimate to someone opens a lot of avenues that Johnny’s not ready to go down but are necessary for his survival.

Secareanu plays Gheorghe with more subtlety; he’s a man of actions rather than words, often performing tasks without explanation. Part of this has to do with his home country which we can only guess is a warzone but it’s perhaps that life with destruction that allows Gheorghe to see past Johnny’s defences. The desire for suicide must’ve been strong for Gheorghe but he found a way out and so can Johnny with the right hand to guide him, and it makes sense for Gheorghe to be that hand, beneath the silent exterior is a warm hearted man with a love and care for the farm animals, evidence of a very gentle person who sees the damage Johnny is doing to himself and understands the need to help him.

First time director Francis Lee approaches this romance from a realistic standpoint, at the start its hostile which evolves into a muddy and graphic sex scene and yet it takes a good while before any romance comes into play because Johnny’s emotional armour. It’s here that the film manages to carve its own place in LGBT cinema, by keeping Johnny guarded and antagonistic it allows the film to have him be both hero and villain, he’s the reason why the relationship falters and yet he’s also the one who needs it most, Lee captures that dichotomy through hidden glances and silent actions between the two men, at times so much is said without being spoken that you only ever need to look at the actors to see the chemistry between them.

Much like its Brokeback companion, the film has a love of wide open prairies but both approach them from different views, Brokeback’s fields represented freedom while here Lee uses a much harsher, colder environment. There are moments where you can feel the desolation ebbing through the screen, representing the loneliness of Johnny’s soul, yet Lee is able to take those same environments and through Gheorghe’s eyes present something enchanting and beautiful.

God’s Own Country is not a film that prides itself on huge moments; this is a film at its best when nothing is happening, just watching two men slowly understanding their feelings for one another. It’s pure minimalist cinema fuelled by powerful acting and a first time director showing an elegant hand that’s sure to lead to bigger and better things.

God’s Own Country will be released in UK cinemas on September 1st.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

Posted on Jun 23, 2017