In the opening act of God’s Own County, the feature film debut from writer/director Francis Lee, the audience gets the feeling that Johnny Saxby has rarely, if ever, experienced love. He lives on a farm with his father and grandmother who are both hardened from years of eking out a living from their land and livestock. Johnny works, drinks too much, awakens with a hangover, vomits and then repeats this cycle day after day. Even his random sexual encounters with other men are quick, animalistic acts that satisfy a momentary urge. There is no love or compassion to be found in Johnny’s world.
When the family takes on Gheorghe, a Romanian farm hand, during their busy season, Johnny gives the migrant worker little thought, dismissing him as a “gypsy” who is invading Johnny’s life and workplace. One day as a storm rolls in, Gheorghe comments that the land is “beautiful, but lonely”. He might as well be describing his opinion of Johnny himself. Eventually, a personal relationship develops between the two men, and Johnny finds a compassion and tenderness in his co-worker that he has never experienced before.
The comparisons to Brokeback Mountain are inevitable. Two men, farming in the wilderness together, when an attraction begins to form that results in a relationship considered taboo in their community. However, cinema has changed significantly since 2005. With Moonlight winning the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier this year and Call Me By Your Name proving to be a festival darling and a 2018 awards hopeful, queer cinema has entered the mainstream. What once was considered shocking is now simply thought of as … storytelling. (Indeed, not many years ago “queer” was an insult, and now it describes a point-of-view, even a genre, of film-making.)
God’s Own Country is not a tale of coming out or even a tale of sexual repression. It is the story of an angry, aggressive young man who finds compassion and tenderness in another person. The sexual orientation of that person is immaterial. Johnny experiences an awakening of his humanity, not just his sexuality.
The film does suggest that Johnny’s true identity might not be a welcome revelation to those around him. When a runt is born on the farm, the sheep reject him. Gheorghe feeds the lamb with a bottle and, when another lamb dies at birth, he drapes that lamb’s skin over the runt, deceiving the herd into admitting him into their fold. The message is clear: to be accepted you may need to pretend to be something you are not.
God’s Own Country won’t be for everyone. It is subtle storytelling on a small scale. The film is slow to develop, but that is not a negative. For me, slow is a tempo, not another word for boring. Writer/director Francis Lee gives his characters and his story time to breathe, to come to life. And by the end of the film, it proves to be a worthwhile investment of your time.
God’s Own Country opens in Landmark Theatre locations across the country on Friday, November 24, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.