Review – God’s Own Country (2017) Edinburgh Film Festival

by Old King Clancy

God’s Own Country has been described as Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain which I think is doing both films a disservice. Brokeback was more of a period piece, dealing with the love of two men in a society that hated them, whereas God’s Own Country tackled a much more personal story about the love between two men when one of them hates themselves. It tackles self-destruction with a deft hand that evokes Mike Leigh’s work, but with a modern sensibility towards homosexual sex and romance.

Set during one 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 too busy getting hammered every night and numbing away with casual sex, Martin hires Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu) to help with work around the farm. Johnny is initially hostile towards Gheorghe, but Gheorghe sees through his shit, and makes it clear he won’t have any of it.

When the two men have to spend several days away in the freezing cold to mend a broken wall and tend to the sheep, a mutual attraction builds between them. They eventually have sex in the field, but where Johnny is happy to keep it as a “one and done” thing, Gheorghe shows an intimacy and tenderness that’s been missing from Johnny’s life, and the two form the starting of a relationship. However, with Martin suffering another stroke, Gheorghe’s working visa running out, and Johnny’s own self-destructive nature working against them, the two men come to realize 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 like Johnny and Gheorghe’s first time together or someone finding out about their relationship, they play out with a minor fanfare which is to the film’s credit. 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 with a love for the barren and desolated hillsides of Yorkshires, but for most it’ll be because of how the characters interact. Particularly Johnny who you always get the feeling is deliberately sabotaging himself, 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 themselves. 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 walking sticks. 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. If anything Deirdre recognizes what Johnny is going through and is scared of what it means for him, judging by her reaction to something later in the film.

The stars of the film are its two leads, both relative newcomers to the scene; O’Conner definitely has the bigger role. Right from the opening scene of Johnny throwing up in the toilet, we get the sense that this is not a man in the right place of his life. From there the film paints us a very broken picture, when Johnny’s not completely out-of-it he’s throwing himself at meaningless sex – though in a clever twist, Johnny already knows he’s gay before the film starts – and when he’s conscious enough to talk he’s aggressive and contradictory. He would complain to his friends about having to stay in the real world while they go off to college. Hours later, he was complaining to his dad that he’s stuck on a farm while his friends are partying in the real world. There’s a hint that Johnny is using a defense mechanism brought on by his mother leaving him a young age, but we don’t delve too far into Johnny’s past to find out. Rather the focus on his present life allows the film to show not how he broke, but how he got fixed. The arrival of Gheorghe is the catalyst for that, but not without some major soul-searching on Johnny’s part, being that close and that intimate to someone opens a lot of avenues that he’s not ready to go down but are necessary for his survival. Gay or not, Johnny is an incredible character in his own right and O’Conner manages to show a man with his emotions just bubbling under the surface, going through his whole life without anyone to open up to.

Secareanu plays Gheorghe with a much more subdued performance, he’s a man of actions rather than words, often performing tasks without explaining what he’s doing. Part of this has to do with his home country which we know very little about but from his descriptions is a warzone – another instance of the film being rotted in the present – but it’s perhaps that life with destruction that allows Gheorghe to see past Johnny’s bullshit. The desire for suicide must’ve been strong for Gheorghe, but he found a way out with the help of Johnny. 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. For example, he kept a runt lamb warm, he worries about a diseased sheep, all evidence of a very gentle person who sees the damage Johnny is doing to himself, and understands the need to help him.

The first time director, Francis Lee, approaches this romance from a very realistic standpoint. At the start it’s hostile which evolves into quite a muddy and graphic sex scene, yet Johnny is keeping his guard up, and actually takes a good while before any romance comes into play because of the emotional armor Johnny keeps on. You can imagine how tempting it would’ve been to make the romance the end-goal of the film and to an extent that’s true, but Lee understands where he wants to take Johnny and knows that there’s a lot more that the character has to go through to reach that end-point. 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 is 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, but you only ever need to look at the actors to see the chemistry between them.

To go back to the Brokeback Mountain comparison for a second, both films do share a love of wide open fields and prairies, but both approach them from different views. Brokeback’s fields represented the freedom that came with solitude, here Lee uses a much harsher, colder environment, there are moments where Johnny and Gheorghe are the only souls around for miles and you can feel the desolation ebbing through the screen, representing the loneliness of Johnny’s souls stuck in the ass-end of nowhere. And yet somehow Lee is able to take those very same environments and through Gheorghe’s eyes present something enchanting, something mythical and beautiful. The landscape plays as much a character in the film as it’s leads and Yorkshire born Lee himself recognizes how best to utilize the gorgeous, but unforgiving setting.

God’s Own Country does borrow elements from Brokeback Mountain and the two make a great companion piece, but on it’s own merits carries more thematically personal weight through the character of Johnny and his reaction to the world around him. It’s not a film that prides itself on huge moment; this is a film which is at it’s best when nothing is happening at all, just watching two men slowly coming to understand their feelings for one another. Honestly I’m not doing the film any justice, if you’ve any interest at all, then you owe it to yourself to watch this one!

 

I am giving God’s Own Country a 4 out of 5 hairpieces!

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