Friday 20 October 2017

No country for young men in love

An affair between sheep-herders is the subject of this darkly poetic drama

New lease of life: Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) sets him on a new path
New lease of life: Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) sets him on a new path

Paul Whitington

Any film that includes sheep, a hillside and a homosexual love affair is bound to get compared to Brokeback Mountain.

That high drama, for all its Oscar-winning qualities, featured two highly idealised shepherds in Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, whose pristine buttocks gleamed magnificently in the Wyoming morning sunshine.

The butt cheeks in this film are mostly caked in Yorkshire muck, and the love affair between a young drunkard and a Romanian migrant worker is about as romantic as a hook up in Copper's. Francis Lee's drama is based in part on his own life, and reminded me in equal parts of a Ken Loach film and a Bronte novel - these are intended as compliments.

The wind wuthers, the skies lower, as disgruntled sheep farmer Johnny Saxby goes glumly about his work. His father - the brilliant Ian Harte - has suffered a debilitating stroke, and is not one bit happy about having to trust his unreliable son with his lands and livestock. Johnny is gay, which we find out early in the film when he has a rushed encounter with a young man at a livestock mart, their functional exchange conducted in the back of a cattle trailer. He drinks to excess when not tramping the moors like a latter-day Heathcliff, and rolls home drunk most nights.

Tensions with his dad are exacerbated by the older man's infirmity, and Johnny's grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones) looks a tired referee. The farm work is too much for one man, so a hired hand has been summoned to help out with the roaming herds of sheep. When Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) turns up, Johnny is resentful, and hostile.He calls Gheorghe a 'gypsy', and does his best to undermine his position. But the Romanian proves to have a rare touch with animals, and in one remarkable scene persuades a ewe to accept an abandoned runt by wrapping it in the pelt of a dead favourite.

When the men are forced to spend several days together mending fences and minding sheep on a bleak hillside, something very unexpected happens. And though up to now Johnny has treated sex as a mere bodily need, his feeling for Gheorghe won't be half so easy to control.

Francis Lee has a background in TV acting, and had only directed a couple of shorts and a documentary prior to this. Let's hope he gets to make more feature films, because God's Own Country is pretty special. Its evocation of the Yorkshire countryside is bleak, but soulful: Mr Lee grew up on just such an isolated farm, and wordlessly evokes the hardship and loneliness of the small farmer's lot.

Johnny drinks because he feels trapped. All his friends have moved away, and those who return silently judge his joyless drinking. Johnny has a sense of duty, and is unwilling to abandon his bitter father and the family farm, both of which will surely fail without him. But he feels there is no life for him on the bleak moors, and dreads the exposure of his sexuality.

He and Gheorghe are given a brief taste of domestic bliss when Johnny's father is taken to hospital and his grandmother goes with him, leaving the farmhouse free. Gheorghe cooks dinner, and the boys watch television together as Johnny finally abandons his hard man act. And in a memorable scene, his grandmother returns to clean the house next day and finds a used condom in Johnny's bedroom. She picks it up and gives it a pensive stare before disposing of it - she may know more than Johnny thinks.

The sexual scenes in this film, and there are a few of them, have a rough, elemental quality that stresses the links between the two men and the animals and countryside around them. Through Gheorghe, Johnny experiences a kind of spiritual awakening, and looks with fresh eyes on the beautiful fields and hills he's tended all his life but has never really noticed.

Josh O'Connor is a bruised and brooding presence in the lead role, Alec Secareanu is most convincing as the soulful Gheorghe, and Gemma Jones is terrific as the eye-rolling granny.

God's Own Country

(16, 105mins) ★★★★★

Films coming soon...

IT (Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard, Sophia Lillis); Wind River (Jeremy Renner, Elisabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal); Insyriated (Hiam Abbass, Mohsen Abbas); The Drummer and the Keeper (Peter McCarthy, Dermot Murphy)

Irish Independent

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