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The 71st Edinburgh Film Festival started with a simmer rather than a bang. Yorkshire set drama God’s Own Country opened this year’s festival, and those who see the film continue to be taken aback by it. It’s quite an accomplishment for a tiny movie with a first time director and very little star power to gather so much steam, but God’s Own Country deserves its steadily building reputation.
You many not have heard of Josh O’Connor, but that will undoubtedly soon change. O’Connor has so far taken small roles in British productions such as Florence Foster Jenkins and The Riot Club, as well as a bit-part in Steven Knight’s BBC drama Peaky Blinders and a regular role in ITV series The Durrells. He’s no staple yet, but he gives a performance in God’s Own Country that suggests it’s only a matter of time. As Johnny Saxby, a young and careless farm worker, he captures a stifled sensitivity and loneliness in the early scenes, when Johnny is at his most brutish.
We first see him as a pale, bare body crouched over a toilet bowl, violently throwing up after a night of hard drinking. It soon becomes clearly that this is nothing out of the ordinary. There are two sides to Johnny: he’s often drunk, is sullen with his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and ailing father (Ian Hart), and he engages in casual sex while actively avoiding a deeper connection with his hookups. He only softens when he’s with the sheep he tends to every day. With no-one around, he talks softly, handling them gently.
That is, until the arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who has come to help on the farm over the weekend. Johnny picks him up from the train station at night and Gheorghe bemoans the lack of phone signal: he’s entered a new world, up on the Yorkshire moors that are cut off from the rest of civilisation. Director Francis Lee has stated that he made the film in an effort to express the isolation he felt growing up there. The film is not autobiographical: Lee moved away from his home to become an actor at age 18, similar to the old friends that Johnny meets one night at the local pub. Instead, the film explores an alternate reality: what if he had stayed? What if someone had come along to ease that isolation? What would life have looked like then? Johnny taunts Gheorghe at first, and Gheorghe makes no effort to appease him. However, the two quickly become curious about one another. To start with, their relationship is a rough, physical one. Soon, that gives way to romance, and a deeper connection that makes their oppressive surroundings more bearable – even beautiful.
God’s Own Country calls to mind various influences, including British social realism such as the cinema of Ken Loach, and the elemental Yorkshire scenery of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. The film has been compared most often to Brokeback Mountain, which is in many ways reductive, however Lee does include a few explicit visual references to that film.
There’s a frank unsentimentality to the filmmaking, and a thoughtful avoidance of cliché in the queer elements of the story. Johnny is already aware of his sexuality before Gheorghe’s arrival, making it less a story of self-awakening, and more of a pure-bred romance that demonstrates the ways in which love can help us to open up. There are still issues of acceptance hanging over the character’s heads, but they are allowed to speak for themselves. In particular, the film’s handling of Johnny’s family’s discovery of his relationship with Gheorghe is a refreshing divergence from what we’ve been taught to expect.
Secareanu is every bit O’Connor’s equal. His role is the less volatile of the two, but there’s always warmth behind his eyes. He holds himself with assured strength, and so we understand the safety that the more unstable Johnny finds in their companionship. The two have wonderful chemistry. Ever since I saw the film, I’ve found myself smiling as my mind drifts back to the small, comforting moments they craft together. Despite the grey toned vistas captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, this is a warm and welcoming film, at its best akin to sitting in comfortable silence around a campfire.
God’s Own Country charts the incremental emotional unfurling of its protagonist, but despite its subdued build-up, the emotional pay-off is huge. You are forced to realise just how much everything you’ve just seen has meant – all in one of the year’s most sublimely acted and written scenes. It plays out against a silent landscape, just as much of the film does, but is preceded by a burst of score. Instrumental music only features at three points in the film, which act as emotional markers. Rather than being unnecessary, they allow you a moment to step back and enjoy the view.
Despite having being scripted before the referendum was announced, the shadow of Brexit inevitably hangs over God’s Own Country.
It is hopeful, like a plea for a future in which we see the welcoming of immigrants as a chance for connection and co-operation, rather than an imposition. This is not a film that tries to be political – in that sense, it’s far from Ken Loach – but its simple and honest story sends a clear message about small lives, and the things that make them feel a little fuller.
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