This debut from Francis Lee is a love story between Romanian farmhand Gheorghe and farm owner’s son Johnny. It is filmed on location in Keighley, south of the Yorkshire Dales.
There is certainly nothing subtle about this film. From the opening shot Lee sets out to describe in an uncompromising way some of the poverty, hardships and brutality of farm life. Lee almost starves his characters of dialogue. The method highlights well the little world of repression in the family (Nan, Dad and son) as they battle the father’s illness and try to make the farm work.
The examination and portrayal of attitudes towards gay relationships in a rural community in 21st century Britain is very interesting. There is no explicit homophobia, though Lee sets us up to expect it. It is a deliberate sign of how much has changed.
What the director does well is to show us how, despite that progress, individuals can still struggle with their own sexuality in the context of wider homophobia in society. Lee tries to examine exactly how Johnny experiences oppression. It is an important study and contribution to our understanding.
Johnny is trapped in a tiny world: the farm, the local pub, the cattle auction. A school friend who has gone away to university asks him if he doesn’t want more than this. But somehow even a night out in Bradford seems like a distant dream!
There is an explosive scene depicting racism towards Gheorge in the local pub. The film portrays Gheorge as a thoughtful and caring person but also as a skilled farmer. The admiration we build, both through Johnny’s eyes and our own, makes this scene all the more shocking.
God’s Own Country is a piece of social realism, in the fine tradition of directors such as Ken Loach. It aims to break down naïve, rose-tinted views of “country-life”, like Radio 4’s The Archers. It is clearly the product of someone who knows and understands the area intimately and in this it succeeds.
This film also has some brilliant portrayals of nature — the lambing scenes and the way they intertwine with the development of Johnny and Gheorge’s relationship are particularly good.
When the film’s close cropped shots break out into the wider landscape it is with beautiful effect.
It is a hopeful film and its themes are very important. But overall it’s somehow a little underwhelming. It seems to pull its punches. All the ingredients are there, but something is missing. The themes of nature — including close-up devices — are consistently done better by director Andrea Arnold in both 2011’s Wuthering Heights (also set in the Yorkshire Dales) and 2016’s American Honey.
The film has already rightly won accolades, but Francis Lee’s best is yet to come.
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