God's Own Country


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu in God's Own Country - springtime in Yorkshire: isolated young sheep farmer Johnny Saxby numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker, employed for the lambing season, ignites an intense relationship that sets Johnny on a new path.
"Debut feature director Francis Lee grew up on a Yorkshire farm and it shows in every inch of this film." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Johnny (Josh O'Connor) has grown up tough on a West Yorkshire farm. His mam flitted years ago to be a hairdresser somewhere, leaving him under the watchful eye of his dad Martin (Ian Hart) and Nan Deidre (Gemma Jones). We quickly learn there's been no time for emotional nonsense there, particularly since his dad had a stroke that has left him struggling to get about even with dual walking sticks. Johnny is a self-destructive fireball, filled with anger, resentment and frustration, he spends his nights getting kaylied and his days working and puking his way through the ensuing hangovers. Johnny is also gay - a fact that he treats with the same physicality of 'getting the job done' as he does milking the cows.

He has carefully crafted his isolation until spring brings with it the promise of lambs and his dad hires Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help with the ewes. He has a dedication to the task borne of experience and the younger man is increasingly drawn into him, first through jealousy but then through something much deeper and, potentially, life-changing for both of them.

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Debut feature director Francis Lee grew up on a Yorkshire farm and it shows in every inch of this film. He isn't scared of dialect and the cadence of the language rings true as a bell, while he also proves a keen observer of family dynamics - particularly the little everyday things that scripts often forget, such as the dad barking at his son to remember to turn off the hot water. The cast is small but Lee, who comes from an acting background himself, gives generously to all his characters, allowing the actors to show us what they are made of, particularly Jones, whose body language is as important as what leaves her mouth. He also makes sure we see the 'business' of the farm - from lambing to dry-stone walling, which the actors carry out as though they, too, were born to it.

The director's eye for the landscape is also spot on, although it is never used in a picture postcard way. Joshua James Richards is, after Songs My Brothers Taught Me and this, a cinematographer to watch, who grasps the wildness of open spaces with a poetic lens. Here, the rolling hills are brooding and, in fact, like Johnny, we barely notice them at first, with the camera more interested in a scrap of wool on a fence or the layers of muck on a tractor wheel. We're also encourage to think about the smell of places both through the scripting and through close ups of items whose scent we can conjure, such as clenched straw, a damp caravan or cow manure. It's Gheorghe who opens out the vista, both literally when he encourages Johnny to look at the landscape, and more figuratively in terms of their relationship.

The chemistry between O'Connor and Secareanu is strong, with Lee putting an emphasis on the importance of touch right through the film - even if it is just a single finger on a hand. Both men have a way with smiles, withholding them until the moment they can have most impact. Perhaps the last 15 minutes of the film is, as Martin might put it, "A bit soft" but it's emotionally earned and satisfying nonetheless.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2017
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Young sheep farmer Johnny numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker offers the promise of something else.
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Director: Francis Lee

Writer: Francis Lee

Starring: Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart

Year: 2017

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: UK

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