‘God's Own Country’ is an impactful take on a familiar story
“God’s Own Country” has been compared quite a lot to “Brokeback Mountain,” as they’re both meandering tales about finding forbidden love in the countryside. They both cross the entire spectrum of emotion from sweet to tragic and back again, but “God’s Own Country” deviates from the picturesque mountains of Wyoming, instead taking place in the gray, cloudy British countryside.
It’s a strong debut for director Francis Lee, who drew partially from his own life as a young man growing up on a farm. That certainly adds to the realism. The film is dirty in a way movies rarely are, showing the routine unpleasantness of farm life, as the main characters guide sheep through giving birth, skin stillborn lambs and shiver in the dirt as they try to sleep through the night up in the hills. Like many films of its kind, it gains credibility from intimate detail of the protagonist Johnny’s (Josh O’Connor) life, whether that’s his grimy days on the farm or the woeful way he spends his nights, drinking alone at the local pub and crawling out of bed in the morning to throw up. He hooks up with strange men and fights with his disagreeable father, clearly just going through the motions.
His life is upended when a Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe ( Alec Secareanu) comes to help with lambing season. Although they don’t get along at first because of Johnny’s surly attitude, they are forced into interacting when they go up to the hills to watch the sheep for a few nights and end up having sex. It sets the stage for the tumultuous love story, which survives Johnny’s parents’ watchful eyes and their drastically different personalities until the situation on the farm changes and their relationship is tested.
What makes “God’s Own Country” stand out from the pack is that, despite the uncertainty that plagues Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship, the movie refuses to let that be the end of their story. I can count the amount of introspective European gay movies--a genre in its own right--with a happy ending on one hand. The movie choosing to become optimistic is a welcome relief after almost two hours of dreariness--the tragic, easy route was well avoided. It made the amount of time spent with Johnny’s belligerent sadness feel justified instead of over-the-top.
Still, the movie is slow, at times to the point of self-indulgence. Lee’s directing alleviates that when claustrophobic farm shots pan out to beautiful landscapes, scattered with sheep and blanketed by gray skies. He pays good attention to his main actors, whose understated acting carries most of the film. Secareanu is especially compelling in scenes where he watches Johnny deteriorate, striking the perfect balance between reserved and steadfast to contrast Johnny’s erratic behavior and depression.
“God’s Own Country” is a beautiful, if somewhat slow take on a classic love story. The subtle script and impressive acting carries it through the more dragging moments and it asserts itself well within a genre that tends to lead to somewhat indistinguishable movies. Lee should be very proud of his debut.
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