Back in 2005, Brokeback Mountain was a breath of fresh air, a romance that was unlike what most mainstream audiences had seen in theaters. Twelve years later, God’s Own Country by first time director Francis Lee works like a refinement of Brokeback, utilizing many of the same elements of Ang Lee’s film without winking, and telling a romance far more captivating and beautiful.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is first introduced by vomiting in the bathroom, following another night of drinking at the local pub. After his father’s stroke, Johnny is now stuck working on his family’s sheep farm, drinking at night to get past his unfortunate lot that he dreads daily. In the empty northern England farm town, Johnny doesn’t fit in, especially considering his social life is relegated to random sexual encounters with other men.
Johnny’s father hires a Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) temporarily to help out on the farm. Johnny shows indifference towards Gheorghe, but when the two must camp out several nights to watch the sheep, the two find a comfort and affection that they both needed.
God’s Own Country is filled with moments that are immediate reminders of Brokeback, from the general idea of two farmers falling in love while in solitude together, right down to the frank moments of sex and even one character longingly smelling the clothes of the other. But Francis Lee’s decision to make this relationship a quiet, simple affair, without giant declarations of love or other cinematic flourishes makes God’s Own Country far more effective than Ang Lee’s similar film.
The relationship between Johnny and Gheorghe is wonderfully calibrated by the O’Connor and Secareanu, as Gheorghe has a kind gentleness needed to handle the rough edges and depression of Johnny. Through their performances, O’Connor and Secareanu balance each other perfectly, making them both come off as parts of a whole.
This softness and harshness is illustrated through Lee’s direction and the gorgeous cinematography of Joshua James Richard, which shows the beauty of the English countryside, while never hiding the stark reality that lies within these pastoral landscapes. When Johnny and George are together, there’s a sweet connection that warms the film, but Lee always counterbalances this with graphic shots of livestock being born, or the shameless disgust many in the area have for the Romanian Gheorghe. Their love might be enough for them, but the outside world is still difficult to navigate beyond their relationship.
As just a love story, God’s Own Country is magnificent, but when Lee focuses on the relationship between Johnny and his father Martin (Ian Hart) and his grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones), God’s Own Country becomes great in a whole new way. This dynamic is immensely powerful – Johnny doesn’t want to disappoint his family, while still wanting to live his own life – but his family knows of Johnny’s pain, and must be rough on him for them farm to survive. Like the love at the core of the film, this family aspect has a flawless parity to it, where every side is valid, yet still painful. Especially in the third act, this family and their shared pain steals the show, emotionally resonate with a rare honesty.
God’s Own Country is a phenomenal debut from Lee, an austere love story that is as immense as it is oppressive. It is heartwarming and rough in equal measure, without ever becoming too sentimental or coarse. Elegantly crafted and harmonious in its various relationships, God’s Own Country is one of the finest romances and family dramas in quite some time.