God’s Own Country is the poor man’s Brokeback Mountain. Well, that’s not fair. It’s not just the men who are poor, even the mountain is more of a hill, or just, you know, fairly flat land, maybe?
It is spring on the Yorkshire farm where Johnny (Josh O’Connor) works from dawn until dusk. It is perhaps not anyone’s first choice to waste one’s youth doing backbreaking work on an isolated farm, but for Johnny, there’s not much choice at all. The family farm is in disrepair and he’s the only labour, the only other inhabitants being his disabled father Martin (Ian Hart) and his elderly grandmother (Gemma Jones), who shower him with love and gratitude. Just kidding. What would be the movie in that? Johnny toils ceaselessly only to be met with criticism and an ever-growing list of tasks. It’s no wonder he escapes into town at night, to numb his frustration with shots and casual sex. He’ll be wrecked in the morning, and take abuse for it, but there is literally no other joy in his life.
And then lambing season comes. Johnny will spend it camping in whichever remote location the ewes have chosen. They hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker, to help out, and as we know from Enis Del Mar and Jack Twist, those cold and forbidding nights inevitably end in some hot hot heat. They fall upon each other roughly, their early lovemaking looking a lot like rodeo calf roping, as only sex between cowboys and farmers can. Their initial passion is hungry and desperate but eventually makes way to an intense but intimate relationship.
Writer-director Francis Lee is speaking to us from experience. His story is not about forbidden love or being different, or searching for acceptance. His theme is much more universal: it’s about loneliness. It’s about how love can give meaning to your life if you let it. It’s about the bravery necessary for letting love in even when you feel like a garbage person. I’m paraphrasing of course, but Johnny doesn’t feel ashamed to me, or all that concerned about hiding. Mainly he seems broken and helpless and angry.
The setting is of course thrillingly authentic, painted in graphic, gritty detail. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards does amazing work, allowing Johnny to literally come into the light.
O’Connor and Secareanu give performances filled with achy longing; even as they repair holes in the farm’s fencing, they are dismantling their own barriers. Francis Lee delivers his romance with a dose of reality; we don’t smell roses, we smell manure. But there is beauty in honesty, and underneath the grime and filth is transformative vulnerability.
Despite my initial impression, God’s Own Country is not some poor relation of Brokeback Mountain. It is its son, born of a generation more hopeful and more tender. Jack and Enis would be proud.