Francis Lee’s feature debut, God’s Own Country, is a moving coming-of-age story and a swoon-worthy romance about small gestures that signal major changes. This review of God’s Own Country is an excerpt from our ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue, which is available for purchase here.
Francis Lee’s feature debut, God’s Own Country, is a film about small gestures that signal major changes. The few times Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) smiles, it feels like a gift. A softly whispered “faggot”, a surprising term of endearment, is what indicates that Johnny’s combative relationship with hunky Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is shifting to something more romantic. Yet even after they have sex, casually chatting while nude, Johnny can’t look Gheorghe in the eye. For this pair, comfort with each other means being able to share a quiet meal together. So when Gheorghe seasons Johnny’s pasta, it’s a swoon-worthy gesture of affection.GOD'S OWN COUNTRY is a film about small gestures that signal major changes.Click To Tweet
When the film begins, Johnny doesn’t have much to smile about. He lives in Yorkshire, with his ailing father (Ian Hart) and stalwart grandmother (Gemma Jones), on his family’s struggling farm, where he has been forced to become chief caretaker. While his friends have left town for their “posh colleges” or jobs, nothing much has changed for Johnny except the weight on his shoulders. His father still barks orders at him as if he’s a teenager doing chores instead of the one responsible for the family’s income. His Nan still cares for him as a child: feeding him, ironing his clothes, and chastising him for immature behaviour.
Johnny has built up a lot of anger and resentment, which comes out in passive-aggressive remarks and grudging asides. Yet he knows there’s no one to really rebel against: his father is too sick to work, and if he didn’t love his family so much, he could have left the farm. So his rebellion turns inwards, becoming self-destruction. Pleasure seems almost alien to him. He spends his nights at the pub getting blackout drunk. He has anonymous, rough sex, for the physical release rather than enjoyment. He can’t even be bothered to protect his hands from his hard labour on the farm. He’s perpetually hunched over with his hood up, as much as protection from the harsh weather as other people. He eats mechanically for fuel. He barely speaks, and when he does, it’s rough and practical. The only time he allows himself to show real tenderness is with the livestock.
Lee shoots the majority of the film from Johnny’s perspective, creating empathy for a boy stuck in a hard life that he didn’t choose. Lee emphasizes the harsh routine of farm life in the editing and sound design, cutting quickly between quiet, domestic scenes and the loud noises of hard labour: after Johnny drinks his morning milk, we cut abruptly to him riding his quad bike on the farm, the loud mechanical noise creating a jarring din. Working alone in a small, sheltered town is lonely — lonelier, we sense, for a gay man, who has fewer options available for a partner, even though he’s accepted by and out to everyone in his community.
To read the rest of the review of God’s Own Country, purchase a copy of the ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue here.