The British farming community has already been acutely examined this year in Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling and will again come under the microscope in Clio Barnard’s forthcoming Dark River. Now there is former actor Francis Lee’s directorial debut God’s Own Country, a red-raw study of life in the Yorkshire Dales. Isolation, confusion and longing are themes Lee explores amid a starkly beautiful natural environment.
The film focuses on Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young man yoked to his family’s small Yorkshire sheep farm after his father Martin (Ian Hart) suffers a stroke, leaving the lad and his grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) to cope with the burden. To compensate for his difficult existence, the sullen Johnny spends his nights in the local pub drinking heavily, or engaging in rough sex with male strangers.
Life take a turn, however, when the Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives to assist with the lambing season. Johnny initially disregards his new co-worker, treating him with disdain, yet as these two spend consecutive nights out in freezing conditions on the moors making repairs and tending to the farm’s flock, a gradual physical bond forms between them.
The obvious comparison is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, although God’s Own Country feels much more naturalistic, thanks to cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The film, which has already won the Best Directing Award in the World Cinema strand in Sundance, will shock some. The frank depiction of animalistic sex is matched by the graphic nature of everyday farming practices.
O’Connor delivers a star-making performance: his frustrations and inability to express emotion are writ large here, brilliantly at times. His chemistry with Secareanu feels utterly authentic – playful and painful in equal measure. Their frisson isn’t hard to spot, at least not by the eagle-eyed Deidre, who isn’t so blind as to realise what’s going on. Yet Johnny remains repressed, unable to fully understand or deal with his desires.
Arriving a year on from the vote by Britons to leave the European Union, this tale of isolationism feels particularly pertinent. A subtle reminder just how British industries need migrant workers, not to mention the difficulties faced by farmers in the UK, Lee has created a smartly-engineered drama that works on both a personal and political level. The result is one of the most impressive home-grown debut features this year.
God’s Own Country opens in cinemas on 1 September. For more information: www.picturehouseentertainment.co.uk
1. Still from God’s Own Country. Credit: Dales Productions Limited/The British Film Institute).