For all its gorgeous sweeping Yorkshire vistas, the key to God’s Own Country is somewhere smaller. Francis Lee’s astonishingly assured debut is all about the hands. Reaching out to offer comfort, steady oneself, or express through touch what simply cannot be conveyed in words, hands are the cornerstone of this profoundly moving tale of learning to be vulnerable in a harsh world. Both a beautiful love story and a breath-catching ode to the Yorkshire countryside, Lee’s film examines in exquisite detail how isolation can breed both harshness and a rare depth of feeling.
John Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is a gay farmer who has collected all the barbs the world has thrown at him and woven them into a self-destructive insulation against real connection. After hard days herding his flocks and repairing damaged pens, John finds his limited solace at the bottom of endless pint glasses and in anonymous sex, before waking up in vomit and self-hatred to start the cycle over. Yet, for all that working alone on acres of land deadens him, his care for his animals is genuine, providing John with moments of joy, and it’s this compassion that ends up being his saviour.
John greets the arrival of Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) with insulted disdain. Hired by John’s grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) for the busy lambing season after patriarch Martin’s (Ian Hart) ill health renders him unfit for the work, Gheorghe can barely get a word in with John without resentment spilling forth in the face of meanly spit attacks on his ethnic heritage. But Gheorghe’s raising of a lamb that he saves after it’s born not breathing, a display of both sentimental kindness and rugged rural know-how, breaks through John’s shell and sparks something in his heart.
Initially, neither man knows how to respond to their burgeoning feelings, and the first time they have sex it resembles a fight more closely than it does anything approaching romance. Lee initially stages the sex scenes with an uncompromising frankness, but as his leads grow more emotionally intimate, he grants them privacy and discretion. When John first decides to truly lower his guard for Gheorghe, his insecurity in his choice makes the sequence as tense as any of the year’s gunfights or alien-monster evasions. O’Connor and Secareanu’s naturalistic, lived-in performances lend the moment a very real power, and the jumpy nerves of the beginning of a possible relationship are contagious.
Thankfully, Lee doesn’t concede to romantic drama expectations and traditions and present the couple with a series of artificial barriers. He’s more interested in the process of falling in love than the falling out of it, though Gheorghe’s itinerant status looms heavily over proceedings. As things progress, an ease sets in in John and Gheorghe’s interactions that is simply lovely and allows for the best screen interpretation of those minuscule but all-important gestures of affection since Moonlight. Verbally, there is plenty of silence between the men, but in small nods, glances, and touches they express all they could possibly need to.
Away from Gheorghe, John’s relationship with his father is immaculately drawn, their similarities immediately evident without being overtly referenced, filling in years of history in snatched conversations and near-silent dinners. Though it starts out as a seemingly hostile status quo between the two, it soon becomes clear that this is simply the by-product of exhausting life in one of England’s most remote rural areas – explicit expression of feeling is a waste of breath. One particular moment between the two, acknowledging each other’s importance, lasts less than 20 seconds, but for me was the single most affecting scene of the year so far.
Joshua James Richard’s cinematography is a sight to behold, turning the ruined barns where John and Gheorghe stay for overnight lambing into impossibly comfortable palaces and capturing the Yorkshire moors in all their stark, awe-inspiring glory. As the new life of Spring seeps into the county, desolation gives way to the more picturesque charms of the countryside, but Lee never lets us forget the reality of life there. The farming itself is shown unsparingly, whether it’s delivering calves or burning away gorse to make way for the sheep, sometimes giving God’s Own Country the feeling of the most wonderfully-shot BBC 4 documentary ever.
Every scene in Lee’s film expertly pulls the audience in to what’s being felt onscreen, catching you in an inescapable emotional current that only grows in power. It would be a truly remarkable achievement for any filmmaker, but for a debut feature it’s close to miraculous. God’s Own Country will move you to tears, but at its core is one of the most uplifting queer love stories in mainstream cinema, where gay couples are all too often painfully star-crossed.