A heartrending and erotically charged romance, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu shine. Francis Lee’s feature debut is a breathtaking beauty.
Barry Jenkins’ sublime Moonlight appeared to set an impossibly high bar for queer cinema in 2017. In fact, it now looks like the start of an incredible purple patch.
This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) program is positively bursting with brilliant LGBTIQ movies, with the staggeringly assured grace of Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country a gleaming highlight.
An outwardly restrained yet inwardly tumultuous pastoral drama set on the harshly beautiful Yorkshire Dales, Lee’s masterpiece is emotionally anchored by a remarkable breakout performance from Josh O’Connor.
As stoically surly farmer’s son Johnny Saxby, he’s a man of few words and a short fuse, a begrudging but hardworking lad almost single-handedly running his family’s sheep farm following his father Martin’s (Ian Hart) stroke. Firm but fair grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) keeps the spartan farmhouse while Johnny struggles in the field, getting blind drunk in the local pub at night.
While he is, as far as his family is concerned, closeted, his destructive behaviour is as much a symptom of inherited intimacy issues and punishingly hard graft with little room for personal time as it is about his conflicted sexuality. Indeed, Johnny isn’t exactly going without, as a perfunctory, spit-aided root in his cow trailer with an eager young market vet attests. Heaven forbid they’d go to the pub for a pint after the deed is done, though old school mate Robyn (Patsy Ferran) is certainly in the know and keen to see him loosen up a little.
Lee, born and bred on a Yorkshire farm, draws a believably complex character in Johnny whilst also conveying the rigorous realities of his life in an unflinchingly naturalistic style, replete with fascinatingly graphic animal husbandry scenes.
Though it’s lambing season, and therefore ostensibly spring, the skies are a broiling mass of thunderous clouds just as likely to deliver sleet as they are intermittent shafts of sunlight. It’s a tough job on his own, necessitating the casual employment of ruggedly handsome Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu, another startling find scouted in Bucharest). Also quiet, Gheorghe’s measured communication conveys more of a gentle soul than Johnny’s buttoned-up belligerence.
Neither Deirdre nor Martin offer much in the way of thanks, something of a character trait in this emotionally guarded family, repeatedly underlining that Gheorghe’s time on the farm is limited to one week. Far from welcoming, Johnny bites the hand that helps him, with Lee seemingly working a coded commentary on Britain’s Brexit delusions. Outwardly aggressive, he cruelly snipes verbal violence in bigoted insult, “gypsy.”
A peaceful soul seeking small comfort from a stolen packet of chocolate biscuits in his freezing caravan parked outside the family home that surely could accommodate him, Gheorghe will only accept Johnny’s bigotry up to a point. When he finally confronts the Englishman while they are hunkering down for a few days in a remote, falling down stone bothy far from the farmstead, the muddy wrestle that ensues leaves their trembling lips mere millimetres apart but a million miles away. It signals a subtle but inescapable shift and the scene will repeat, bare skin caked in mud as defences crumble.
Gheorghe’s patient tending for an abandoned runt of a lamb, with a bluntly survivalist but somehow still gobsmackingly sweet cheat against nature’s merciless ways, traces the slow, erotic dance towards Johnny’s surrender.
As is his nature, the road hits a pothole or two, but inescapable hunger eventually progresses from animal carnal to achingly tender. It’s a remarkable testament to the incredible performances of both young actors and Lee’s perfectly judged storytelling.
Secareanu says so much with his heavily lashed eyes and the touch of his rugged fingers, manhandling Johnny out of his bunker, mirrored in a film brimming full of subtle echoes by the bridging of the chasm between father and son. O’Connor’s gasping, panting, shivering release, as internal walls come down even as Johnny and Gheorghe rebuild the farm’s hand-cut stone boundary, is one of the most thrillingly sensual I’ve seen on screen.
All this is delicately scored by Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie and incandescently framed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. With the vision of an impressionist painter, he knows just when to linger on trembling skin and then pull back to a glorious hilltop panorama in a moment’s unspoken bliss.
Announcing himself as one of Britain’s most promising new filmmakers, Lee similarly trusts when words, so difficult to unspool for both men, should take a back seat to a loaded glance. When love is too hard a word to say, shared intent roars loud over rolling hills in this heart-swollen cinematic triumph.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords
Book tickets to see God’s Own Country at MIFF here. Stephen will host a Q&A with director Francis Lee following the Saturday, August 5, screening.