First off, a warning: don’t start watching this whilst eating. You’ve got vomiting, calving and barebacking (and in that order) all in the first ten minutes. Although the movie soon becomes more palatable, it is worth noting that this is not a comfortable film to watch. Comforting maybe, especially by the end, but far from comfortable.
Top Tip: a lot of bits sound like porn, so use headphones.
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017) tells the story of Johnny, a young man in Yorkshire who starts a torrid affair with a Romanian immigrant, Gheorghe, who comes to help out on his father’s sheep farm. Johnny is transformed by their relationship, discovering the depths of his own affection and vulnerability.
The main word that came to mind watching this film was ‘gritty’. The boys’ first sexual encounter is dirty, aggressive and — one can assume in every sense of the word — raw. Throughout this first experience, they are literally rolling in mud. And yet, sex eventually leads to romantic affection — a pathway that feels all too familiar in the gay community. A subversive change to the heteronormative relationship path. Josh O’Connor plays this perfectly in his portrayal of Johnny, who, even after their interactions go from raw to tender, still has to break down his own barriers to be able to kiss Gheorghe on the mouth for the first time. Think Pretty Woman, but (somehow) gayer. And less patronising towards sex workers.
Biggest Gay Mood: fucking in a pub toilet
Their affair begins at the edge of the farmland, where the two of them camp for a few days to tend to straying ewes. Here especially their world is extremely contained, surrounded only by the dull yet beautiful Yorkshire landscape, with no communication to the outside world. In fact, there is a distinct lack of temporality in the film as a whole. If it weren’t for the few brief scenes outside the farm, a viewer could easily not realise that it is set in the 21st Century. The farmhouse seemingly has no Internet, and the only phone we see is a landline. One early scene showing Gheorghe and Johnny watching TV together shows us that, for Johnny, the exotic presence of the new boy provides a welcome distraction from the monotonous life of the farmhouse, village and local pub he visits almost every night. Enhanced by flashing images from the TV in the background, we see that Gheorghe gives him a peek into what the rest of the world — and, crucially, what his own desires beyond the sexual — can hold.
Britney Line Time: “when you know somebody, and they know your body, it’s so much better”
The film’s greatest emotional power lies in the unspoken. It didn’t strike me as odd when watching, but there is a distinct lack of dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, the characters do say things, but there are huge gaps without speech, putting even more emphasis on the small gestures, the facial expressions, the subtext. Even the symbolism of the smoke becomes more visible through the silence, appearing in various forms throughout the film — as cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, mist — perhaps representing a confusion, a lack of clarity, even a direct unwillingness to see situations, or people, as they are; an ambiguity through the haze.
Inevitably, unspoken homophobia does have a lingering presence — at one moment in a poignant conversation about their future the boys have to pause when two strangers walk past — but, refreshingly, it is not the film’s defining characteristic. In fact, racial prejudices, from Johnny himself and from onlookers, seems to hinder their relationship more. And this also isn’t a story about coming out. Above all, it is a story about discovering your capacity for love. It’s dirty, it’s uncomfortable, even problematic at times, but it’s heartfelt. And, whatever this means, it feels human and it feels real.
Header image via The Times