God’s Own Country Review
By Rich Cline
There’s a reason why this is perhaps the best-reviewed British film of the year: it’s a staggeringly skilful feature filmmaking debut for West Yorkshire born and bred Francis Lee. And while its premise may make it sound like “Brokeback Mountain on the Moors”, it’s actually something far more original that that.
The story is set on a hill above Keighley, where young Johnny (Josh O’Connor) has been forced to take responsibility for running the family sheep farm while his father (Ian Hart) hopefully recovers from a debilitating stroke. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) helps manage the house, and is worried that Johnny’s hard-drinking ways are going to cause problems. So she hires Romanian immigrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help out. An expert with lambs, he soon begins teaching Johnny a thing or two. And on an extended trip to the far reaches of the land, they finally see past their bickering to a mutual attraction for each other. But Johnny is struggling with opening up about any of his emotions.
Thankfully, Lee never plays into the usual movie cliches. Homophobia isn’t an issue here, so these two young men must cope with the implications of their budding relationship without that pressure. Much of the weight is on Johnny’s shoulders, as he resists identifying as gay. This certainly isn’t just about sex. That’s here, but the more powerful scenes involve things like Gheorghe teaching Johnny the value of a gentle cuddle. Yes, the film has a remarkable eye for powerful detail, and both O’Connor and Secareanu are terrific as guys who come together in unexpected ways. O’Connor has the bigger challenge trying to make the abrasively distancing Johnny likeable, but he manages it with earthy honesty. While Secareanu’s charm and intelligence keep Gheorghe from becoming a stereotypical foreigner.
Lee directs the film with remarkable authenticity that requires both actors to know what they’re doing on the farm. And this attention to detail gives both of the characters (as well as the ones played by Hart and Jones) so much texture that they’re easy to identify with. It helps that the camerawork by Joshua James Richards is so adept at capturing the people and places. And the presence of even bigger issues like generational conflicts, social pressures and modern-day farming adds layers of depth without ever turning preachy. Instead, this is just a strikingly well-observed story about two lost people who find each other in an unexpected place.
Starring: Josh O’Connor as Johnny Saxby, Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe Ionescu, Ian Hart as Martin Saxby, Gemma Jones as Deidre Saxby, Naveed Choudhry as Male Nurse, Stefan Dermendjiev as Bearded Farm Worker, Patsy Ferran as Robyn, Moey Hassan as Taxi Driver, Melanie Kilburn as Gloria, John McCrea as University Boy, Harry Lister Smith as Trainee Auctioneer, Alexander Suvandjiev as Young Farm Worker, Liam Thomas as Glen, Sarah White as Joy