God’s Own Country (2017)

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It has been twelve years since the milestone Brokeback Mountain (2005) demanded that cinema be more honest in depicting the realities of same-sex love. Much has changed since then but most tropes of romance are still linked to heterosexuality. Whatever Brokeback achieved in the Wyoming mountains, God’s Own Country (2017) takes to another level in the Pennine Hills of Northern England. It is a measure of social progress that cinema has moved beyond just portraits of ‘forbidden love’ to a space where it can openly explore rather than confront gay love.

Life on a sheep farm is tough and lonely for Johnny (Josh O’Connor). Since his father’s stroke, he runs the farm by himself but all he gets is scowling disapproval from his ageing parents.  He vents his anger and frustration in drunken binges and rough furtive sex with other gay men in a village wary of anyone who is different. A handsome Romanian seasonal worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is hired to help during the lambing season and Johnny’s rural racism erupts in verbal taunts. Called a gypsy once too often, Gheorghe confronts him with intense physicality and the relationship changes instantly. While tending the sheep, they spend a few nights in an isolated shelter and their first sexual encounter terrifies and confuses Johnny who has never known tenderness and emotional acceptance. Gheorghe’s sensitivity compels Johnny to confront his inner fears and discover his emotional self.

This is a complex film on several levels. The story barely moves forward in this cold, lonely, inhospitable place, with the narrative energy coming entirely from its earthy filming style and intense, authentic characterisation. The camera accentuates the slow pace of life by lingering on empty spaces, small details, and nature’s ways. A close-up of a butterfly, misty morning light, the birth of a lamb, panoramas of harsh beauty in frosty air, all take on meanings beyond what we see. The depth and nuance of acting by O’Connor and Secareanu is the film’s powerhouse. The silences are long and dialogue sparse, and much is communicated through action. Initially there is little to like about Johnny: we cannot get close to someone who is so distant from himself. Gheorghe is the opposite: intuitive, warm, and empathetic. The chemistry between them progresses from turbulence to deep acceptance and each step of the journey is raw and exposed. Intimacy between males is still a frontier in cinema and this film breaks through.

Like Brokeback, this is a genre-defying, coming of age, drama-rich love story. Today’s audiences expect realism in human relationship stories and this film offers a full-frontal exploration of masculine sexuality and emotional self-discovery.  This is a love story of universal relevance that transcends the usual clichés of romance. It is brave cinema with cutting-edge honesty.

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Director:  Francis Lee

Stars:  Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

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