GOD'S OWN COUNTRY
Spring. Yorkshire. Young farmer Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker for lambing season, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), ignites an intense relationship that sets Johnny on a new path.
Review by Louise Keller:
The picturesque, isolated landscape of Yorkshire is the setting for this moody and haunting film that tracks the emotional journey of a protagonist propelled by anger. Beyond their surnames (they are not related), there are resonances between actor Francis Lee's feature film debut and that of Ang Lee's award winning Brokeback Mountain: both could be described as 'a gay cowboy movie'. God's Own Country begins slowly and patience is required as the exposition starts to take shape. But there are rewards as the film progresses and Lee elicits strong performances from his central characters: Josh O'Connor as the sullen farmer Johnny Saxby and Alex Secareanu as the handsome Romanian migrant Gheorghe, who changes Johnny's perspective.
Lee perfectly embraces the harshness of the Yorkshire setting, complete with its unbridled beauty and overt loneliness. Catalyst to the action is the arrival of a Gheorghe, the casual farmhand from Romania, whose calm, gentle and controlled persona is a sharp contrast to that of the protagonist. One of the film's challenges is that Johnny is not an especially likeable character. In fact, it is easy to dislike him with his self-destructive behavior and rudeness to all around him (you may recognize O'Connor as James from the TV series Peaky Blinders).
The film begins slowly as it establishes the reality in which Johnny lives, offering a feeling for life and harsh demands of the farm. In the early scenes as Johnny partakes in casual sex and drinks to excess at the local pub, we understand that he does not connect with anything or anyone. There is no warmth or friendliness at home either - it is only when he is with the cows and sheep that we glimpse a slightly softer side.
He and Gheorghe do not hit it off immediately, with Johnny aggravating the tensions between them by calling him Gypsy - a name the former hates. We easily engage with Gheorghe with his dark brooding good looks and easy manner. It is not until the two men venture out together into the cold landscape with the sheep to work on the land that everything changes. A physical tussle turns to passion. There's a raw energy about the film with its graphic sex scenes and unselfconscious full frontal nudity.
It is what happens after the sex that is of special interest. Can the relationship turn life around for Johnny or are the challenges too great to overcome? The insight into the emotional needs of both men is well accomplished and while the scene when Johnny has a meaningful conversation with his crippled, ailing father (Ian Hart) may not be articulate, it is a case of body language being more effective than words. Watch for Gemma Jones as Johnny's disapproving mother.
While God's Own Country may not have the broad appeal of Brokeback Mountain, it is nonetheless a powerful work, albeit targeted to predominantly festival and gay audiences.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The harsh world of Yorkshire family sized farming provides a graphic backdrop for what turns out to be a love story against the odds. Young Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) is a rough and tumble sort of guy whose father (Ian Hart) has been made semi crippled and unable to run the place without him. Grumbling, morose and lonely, Johnny drinks himself senseless most nights at the nearest pub and spends the mornings sleeping it off and chucking it up. It's not glamorous. Occasionally, Johhny has a tumble with some poor youngster but it's all without emotion. More like animalistic.
The arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a young Romanian 'don't call me gypsy' sets off a chain of emotional events that bring Johnny out of the dark world of repression and self loathing. Gheorghe is a migrant, but grew up on a farm is a handy guy to have around during the week-long lambing season. He knows, for example, how to transfer the skin of a dead lamb to a living one so the mother will continue to feed the living ... it's pretty much what he does to Johnny's sense of self, too.
The English preference for raw, kitchen sink dramas and the atmosphere of starkly beautiful but poor Yorkshire give the film plenty of texture, and the characters sometimes disappear in the darkness.
Brokeback Mountain has been used as reference point by some critics, but that is misleading; this is not a geographically transplanted reworking of Ang Lee's film and stands on its own, within its own cultural and physical context. The graphic sex and earthy setting provide a very different mood to that of Montana and the mountains. Nor is it as complex and layered.
The locals are unsurprisingly bigoted and the inevitable betrayal is typically pathetic.
The film's limitations are its limited scale and the film's insistent dourness, even of the gay (but not joyous) romance.
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GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (MA15+)
CAST: Josh O'Conner, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart
PRODUCER: Manon Ardisson, Jack Tarling
DIRECTOR: Francis Lee
SCRIPT: Francis Lee
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Joshua James Richards
EDITOR: Chris Wyatt
MUSIC: Dustin O'Halloran, Adam Wiltzie
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Stephane Collonge
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: August 24, 2017; Sydney: August 31, 2017