Director: Francis Lee
Cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu
Watch God’s Own Country online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV Store / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Google Play
“Are you a Paki or something?” Johnny (Josh O’Connor) asks Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), the Romanian who has come to work on his farm. It’s the kind of question that feels all too familiar in Brexit Britain, and God’s Own Country takes that backdrop of a nation finding its identity and frames against it a coming-of-age tale that’s achingly, movingly personal.
Johnny is destined to inherit his family’s estate, but finds himself shouldering its burden much sooner, after his dad (Ian Hart) suffers a stroke. And so he becomes chained to the rural pastures and its livestock, a lonely existence of long hours in muddy isolation. Until in walks Gheorghe, a migrant hired to help during the lambing season. Living in close proximity and carrying out intense physical duties, their sweaty, exhausting labour fosters a romance between them, one that erupts with a fiery mix of attraction and hatred.
Johnny’s resentful of his lot, with a self-loathing that he lets out in bouts of sex in the bar where he gets wasted every night. It manifests, too, in his racist insults to Gheorghe, whom he calls “gypsy” without hesitation. Over the course of the film, though, that brittle nastiness softens, as Gheorghe’s kindness towards the lambs is applied just as gently to his employer; he slowly brings out the human side of Johnny, just as Johnny gradually gives Gheorghe a place to consider home.
The two leads are wonderful: Josh O’Connor sinks his teeth into a character who could have been unsympathetic in other hands, conveying every fragment of fractured feeling with his sullen face, while Alec Secareanu ensures that Gheorghe becomes more than just a stock character. They’re supported by the excellent Hart as Johnny’s ailing father and Gemma Jones as his resilient, stern aunt – an ensemble that feels raw and honest.
Writer-director Francis Lee likely started the film before the UK voted to leave the European Union, but it’s hard to detach from that context – not solely in terms of the xenophobia on display down the neighbourhood boozer, but in the unforgiving challenges facing farmers, as they brace for a future where EU funding will likely disappear. Indeed, God’s Own Country belongs as much to coming-of-age films as it does to the strain of pastoral British cinema that has given us Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling and Clio Barnard’s upcoming Dark River; dramas of pent-up emotion, unspoken conflict and a fight to feel like one has a right to be on one’s land. The title is as much ironic as it is sincere, as Lee captures the beauty of the landscape around Johnny’s farm. The result is a poignant tale of young romance, maturing identity, and mutual belonging – and a moving reminder that cooperation, not solitude, builds a home. Judging by this fantastic directorial debut, Francis Lee is a filmmaker to watch.
God’s Own Country is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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