God’s Own Country, dir. Francis Lee│The title of Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country refers to a phrase of endearment used by people in Yorkshire to describe their own deeply idiosyncratic part of the world – something the director slowly dissects at length. Himself a Yorkshireman, Lee has taken the support of Creative England’s low-budget first feature scheme iFeatures and created a rough, rural debut that has since catapulted him into festivals like Sundance (where he won Best Directing Award), Berlinale and now the 16th Transilvania International Film Festival.
In many ways, TIFF’s main competition is the perfect home for God’s Own Country. Sitting as it does in plush plains at the foot of the Transylvanian hills, this blossoming festival acts as a fascinating bridge between Cluj’s pointedly discerning audiences and the pastoral community that surrounds the fertile Someșul Mic river. So it could be seen as the perfect location for an art-house, British realist film that focuses heavily on the farming community and the hardships that can sometimes exist therein.
This match is further improved by the fact that Lee has scripted the darkly handsome Romanian Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) into his screenplay. In fact, this migrant farmhand character gave us a fascinating double perspective on the night. Gheorghe is frequently referred to as “gypo” by the film’s British main character Johnny, and it clearly represents an attempt by the director to confront the discrimination that many migrants face in the UK. But at the same time, there seemed as sort of awkward awareness amongst the audience about how Romanians are often treated by foreigners, something they themselves seem keen to dispel and tackle head on, just as Gheorghe does in the film by soon putting Johnny in his place.
But God’s Own Country is not meant to be an idealised depiction of Yorkshire, as the title might suggest. What we get instead is a warts-and-all portrait that at times is really rather close to Emily Bronte’s often damning classic Wuthering Heights. From before the film’s opening shots even start to roll, we’re already buffeted by the sound of a cold, hard winds blowing through wuthered cracks. And just as harsh and unforgiving proves to immediately be the film’s dialogue, spoken almost entirely in regional dialect, much like Bronte’s novel.
What we are met with is a unwelcoming existence on the isolated Yorkshire moors, where a young Johnny Saxby is being forced to be mature before his time. Following a debilitating stroke, Johnny’s father is no longer able to maintain his family’s farm, and is driven to compelling his son to keep things going. Left with little to enjoy beyond the hard graft, Johnny turns aggressively and repeatedly to drink, and in what seems like a rather extreme form of the working-class British family, all of the Saxby clan seem to do little more bark orders at each other – almost never expressing emotions or affection.
As extreme as it may be, though, God’s Own Country always pays studious attention to detail. Himself the son of a Yorkshire farmer, the director has gone to great length to ensure that all of the actors’ actions are as authentic as possible – whether they be rebuilding collapsed dry stone walls or delivering calves. What’s more, the film’s colours are forever muted, and the camera traipses back and forth over the fields where family grazes its herds. The result is a really coarse aesthetic, that is constantly being dragged through thick, wet mud or rough hay.
However, the surprise you might not expect to find rolling around in all this harsh, macho intolerance and mud is actually the fact that some rather furtive sexual secrets lurk in Johnny’s closet. Sometimes his work on the farm leads him into some rather wild scenes with the other farm boys, and they copulate with a ferocity and passion that does not seem out of place with the rest of their very animal-orientated world. And despite his outward intolerance, Johnny certainly shows no lack of desire to get into the pants of the dark, strapping Gheorghe either.
What follows is a gritty, visceral coming of age story as both characters as try to get to a stage in life where they don’t have to keep running away from their desires or messing things up out of a frustration that they may never be loved. It’s not unlike a sort of European Brokeback Mountain, only Lee’s story of love across barriers carries a little more hope than its American counterpart.
As a feature, God’s Own Country certainly comes at an interesting point, as Romania continues to explore how they envision LGBT lives and stories to be. It also comes at an interesting time for Britain, representing a story of hope and love across borders, despite there presently seeming to be so little of that. What’s more, the film makes a particularly interesting addendum to the footnotes of British history.
The credits end on archival footage of smiling farm boys working in idyllic Yorkshire fields during the 1950s. But by the end of the film, it is almost as though these images have been rewritten, and you can see a potential Johnny or Gheorghe in every almost labourer’s face. It is almost as though a gay history has been projected backwards, onto a context no trace of one was ever allowed to survive.
This characteristic of the movie places God’s Own Land in a continued British movement (one supported by the likes of iFeatures and the BFI) which is industriously endeavouring to fill the gaps that have existed its cultural heritage. This movement may at times perhaps seem a bit ham-fisted to audiences in other countries, and it may even ruffle some people’s feathers, but for the UK’s part, it continues to be a declaration of how vital, nuanced and important these stories can be to tell.■
│In cooperation with│
God’s Own Country│ Director: Francis Lee│ Screenplay: Francis Lee│ Camera: Joshua James Richards│ Editing: Chris Wyatt │ Music: Phoenix│ Cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones│ Producer: Manon Ardisson, Jack Tarling│ Production Company: Shudder Films / Inflammable Films│Country: United Kingdom│ Year: 2017│ Running Time: 104 min.│ International Sales: Protagonist Pictures│ Festival: Transilvania IFF 2017│