Without pulling any punches, God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2016) is a gritty depiction of the Yorkshire countryside, through the lens of hopeless, young farmer, John Saxby (Josh O’connor). When he manages to get away from helping his disabled father, Martin (Ian Hart), around the farm, he chases thrills by having casual sex with whatever man is closest and drinking himself into oblivion; that is until John’s grandmother, Deirdre (Gemma Jones), hires a Romanian farmhand, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), immediately creating all kinds of tension on this quiet farm in the North of England.
For a debut feature, Francis Lee ensures his writing and directing is bold. As mentioned previously, this film does not hold back in its portrayal of all walks of life. The rough, casual sex in toilets, in cattle-sheds, and even in an open field is laid bare for the audience to see. The live and very real cattle births in the film also give an air of realism to the story, which helps us to believe that these characters exist. The vast swathes of land, the cobblestone streets, the homophobic bigots who are desperate to take their anger out on people they just don’t understand – all these things plant us as viewers in the real world setting of the ‘Godzone’, more commonly referred to as Yorkshire. Lee holds on wide shots and lets us soak in the grim beauty of the North.
I must admit I didn’t recognise any of the main cast of God’s Own Country – and I watched it twice. For me, this was particularly effective, as it allowed the characters to come through more than the stars, similar to I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016). Josh O’Connor did an incredible job of tapping into his inner screw-up to portray the hopeless John Saxby. His struggle was very personal and he really carried across the idea that John was stumbling through life in a daze. Having had experience mostly in Romanian cinema, Alec Secareanu is also relatively unknown. Much calmer and collected, his character’s struggle is one to which many people across the world can relate. He is an immigrant who has moved to England to earn money to support his family.
Having both appeared in the Harry Potter franchise, among many, many more, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones lend their experienced acting chops to this film, creating many of the more heightened dramatic moments. Hart plays John’s father, Martin, who is disabled after a stroke and is clearly bitter about how his body has betrayed him over the years, having depended on it for his livelihood. His relationship with his mother, Deirdre, is reflected in the organic chemistry Hart has with Jones. The moments they have together can be both sweet and heart-breaking at times. The history between them is palpable and it adds a lot to the story, particularly as it is reflected in John’s relationship with Martin too.
Being quiet visually and audibly, God’s Own Country takes its time to reflect on a number of social issues: homosexuality, immigration, dependants, and so on. However, there is of course always a downside to realism, in that the film is a hard slog for a lot of it. It’s a relatively short film, but feels much longer and sometimes it’s hard to see the point to the whole thing. With its slow delivery but satisfying finale, God’s Own Country serves as a reminder that sometimes the most beautiful and natural things in life are not always so easy to look at.
by Sam Packer
God’s Own Country will be showing at the Gulbenkian from this Friday 29th September — Sunday 1st October 2017