It was the most Yorkshire of times, if not the blurst of times. Sat in the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, a glorious old cinema with just the one screen and a balcony, sipping a fine ale, and watching a film called God's Own Country. All very Yorkshire.
Francis Lee's debut film has been incessantly compared to Brokeback Mountain, mainly due to the topic and the rural setting. Beyond those superficial things though, there really is no comparison. God's Own Country sets out to tell a very different tale from Brokeback Mountain, and it's interesting that it succeeds by leaving out certain story elements, such as the search for identity amid homophobia and denial. It's not that that isn't a worthy tale, but it's one we've seen before, and God's Own Country brings us something different.
Instead, this story focusses on the loneliness and even fierceness that has fallen on a family out in the English countryside. Our protagonist, Johnny (Josh O'Connor) sets the tone by beginning the film with a vomiting session before he sets off to work around the farm that he is largely responsible for, his widowed father (Ian Hart) being incapable of assisting after being affected by a stroke. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) is keeping the household together and both these supporting characters are wonderfully portrayed by the actors, tight-lipped and repressed in true British fashion, but with a real sense of being hardened by their lives. Johnny is well on his way to becoming just as hardened and dour as them, but he resists, with regular trips down to the pub, leading to that inevitable vomiting and a constant hungover expression. Dissatisfaction with his inertia hits home when he sees his old childhood friend at the pub., back from university on reading week, while he has had no choice but to inherit the farm and its array of jobs.
A change comes in the form of Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian worker who takes the job in his stride, calmly tending to the birth of sheep, living in a tiny caravan all the while. Initially, Johnny treats him distastefully, with many uses of the word 'Gyppo', but an extended trip up the farm to fix a section of wall requires the pair staying overnight together and their relationship changes. Gheorghe teaches Johnny to be tender, to open up, in stark contrast to an early scene of Johnny having a rough sexual liaison at a cattle market. The pair share their bodies in increasingly loving ways.
The love the pair share is honest and genuine, and above all, simple. They take pleasure in each other, even while enduring physical hardships of keeping the farm running. Gheorghe, in his quiet and thoughtful way, shows Johnny beauty where he hadn't seen it before, taking the time to appreciate the views of the countryside afforded to them. Johnny is on an uphill struggle to find happiness, but despite the bleak surroundings the film has a hopeful feel to it, it is not miserable in the least, even when things can be a bit dour. This is a film that will make you FEEL. And it's excellent at doing it.
It's poignant for its treatment of xenophobia and racism in this country, especially in light of increased racial tensions in this country since the referendum and attitudes towards immigrant workers. It's also wonderful to see a film where the characters' sexuality is not called into question. Homophobia is still an issue (obviously) and there are still stories to tell about it, but it gives you warm feelings to just watch a love develop without that worry. And the romance is entirely believable thanks to two outstanding performances from O'Connor and Secareanu, combined with stunning cinematography. God's Own Country is simple, beautiful, and effective, and it is exactly the sort of story I want to see told in film right now. Strong recommendation, go and watch it now, right bloody now.