In astutely and fearlessly tackling the struggle for intimacy and emotional connection that goes right to the musty heart of Anglo culture, God’s Own Country is sometimes confronting, but worth venturing out of your comfort zone to see.
Many are likely to find writer/director Francis Lee’s autobiographical feature film debut God’s Own Country confronting. I certainly did. We tend to steer clear of material that causes us discomfort. That will probably limit the film’s audience appeal. A pity. Lee approaches his central theme of intimacy with sensitivity, astuteness and a front-on honesty that digs uncommonly deep. In this, he reminds me of DH Lawrence.
So, what’s so confrontational? Well, there’s the sex. This is probably as hard core as simulated (I assume) male-to-male cinema sex gets. It’s not gratuitous and there are no porno-style anatomical close-ups. But it’s all writ large on the screen before you. And we’re not talking romantic soft-focus Mills-and-Boon-gay-edition stuff a la Call Me By Your Name.
Then there’s the graphic animal husbandry: actual lamb birthing and its aftermath, elbow-deep posterior internal examinations of pregnant ewes etc.
But most confronting by far is the struggle of the lead character Johnny Saxby (brilliantly played by Josh O’Connor) to access his repressed emotions, and then find a way to express them. This struggle goes right to the musty heart of Anglo culture, yet very few artists have acknowledged or explored this as fearlessly and courageously as Lee does here.
Our first encounter with Johnny is unsavoury, to put it mildly. As the cold, grey north-of-England dawn breaks, he’s retching after a big night on the turps. The dour faces of his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and father (Ian Hart) tell us that this is a regular occurrence.
We soon learn that his binges at the local are his way of compensating for multiple sources of dissatisfaction and frustration. His father has been left lame by a stroke. Johnny is now burdened with the once-shared responsibility of keeping their small sheep farm operating. However, with no input into the management of the place he is not much more than a navvy working resentfully under his father’s direction.
His love life, for want of a better term, comprises rough furtive sexual encounters of the rocks-off/piss-off kind. His grandmother and father are conservative farm folk unlikely to welcome a coming-out announcement. Thus, Johnny is unexpressed in all aspects of his life, except the crudely physical. That is, until the arrival of Romanian temp farm worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu).
Gheorghe loves working with animals and is good at it. Further, he finds beauty in the bleak Pennines landscape.
When work obligates Johnny and Gheorghe to spend time together in a hut far distant from the house, their obvious physical attraction becomes overwhelming, with inevitable consequences. However, there is more going on here than sex. Johnny starts to see things through Gheorghe’s eyes. He begins to appreciate his ancestral land anew, and to find new purpose in farming. He has begun to wake emotionally. And that’s frightening, dangerous new territory for him.
With his future with the far more emotionally mature Gheorghe teetering in the balance, and his father suffering a second, debilitating stroke, Johnny is thrown in the deep end. He must venture to unexplored territory within himself to discover who he is and what he wants.
His odyssey is superbly negotiated. His softening and opening up towards his ailing father is poignant, and even more so an exquisitely managed scene near the conclusion of the film, in which he must reach further than ever before to find the words to express himself to Gheorghe.
This is difficult stuff, done wonderfully well. It has the authenticity of personal testimony about it. And it’s worth venturing out of your comfort zone to see. The film of the Festival so far, for me.
Movie website: http://www.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/gods-own-country/
God’s Own Country screening dates (2017-18 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
UWA Somerville: 29 Jan-4 Feb 2018, 8.00 PM
ECU Joondalup Pines: 6 Feb-11 Feb 2018, 8.00 PM
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