One-line review: A migrant worker also helps an English farmer find love.

God’s own country is a love story between two men working on a Yorkshire farm, and therefore comparisons with Brokeback Mountain are inevitable. But unlike Brokeback Mountain, neither homosexuality nor homophobia is God’s own country’s focus: love is.

This is director Francis Lee’s debut film (he also wrote it) and is drawn from his experiences growing up in Yorkshire (his father owns a farm there). The cast says because of Lee’s clear vision for the film, the script was specific to the minutest detail. Lee’s main metric for gauging the film’s quality was authenticity, and he went to extreme lengths to achieve it, with remarkable results. Most fans of the film (including me) have watched it multiple times, coming away with a new understanding each time. For example, in my most recent viewing, I noticed the film’s lead does not look up for the longest time, and with good reason.   

The film is sparsely populated, like the landscape. The three main characters, the Saxbys, live on their farm. Although it is clear they care for each other, they barely communicate except to discuss farm-related matters. Farmer Martin Saxby (Ian Hart) is recouping after a stroke, and his only son, young Johnny Saxby (Josh O Connor), must now keep the farm running. Johnny’s grandmother Deirdre Saxby (Gemma Jones) also lives in the house. We are mostly in Johnny’s company, and he is not pleasant to be around. He emotionlessly goes through the same motions every day, tending to the farm animals, spreading the muck, and cleaning up. In the evenings, he goes to the local pub, gets drunk, has rough sex with strangers (men), and usually gets home late, retching and barely able to walk. 

Unsurprisingly his father and grandmother do not think he can manage alone and decide to hire a migrant worker to help on the farm for a few days. A resentful Johnny goes to pick up the Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), and it is hate at first sight. Johnny tries to dissuade Gheorghe from staying on and even insults him by calling him a gypsy. Gheorghe also distrusts Johnny and doesn’t think much of him after seeing him return home drunk every night and getting into fights with his father.  

Shortly after, the two men go away for a couple of days to build a fence along the farm’s boundaries. Being closeted together in the harsh cold and rain is the breeding ground for attraction between them. At first, it’s all-business Johnny style, but the tone changes as the men continue to bond while working together. Gheorghe’s gentleness with the animals and especially his tenderness in bringing back a lamb to life brings a smile to Johnny’s dour face, and we see a glimpse of the emotions buried deep inside him. The subsequent encounters between the men then become gentler, with Gheorghe teaching Johnny how to make love rather than just have sex.

Unfortunately, the men’s idyllic time together is cut short when Johnny’s father has another stroke. Johnny asks Gheorghe to stay on for some more. Soon it’s clear that Saxby Sr. will never be able to return to farming and Johnny asks Gheorghe to stay on for good. An argument ensues about their living arrangements and life together, leading to some inappropriate behavior from Johnny, and Gheorghe leaves the farm. Will Johnny go back to his old ways or will he take a chance at love and seek out Gheorghe? Will he be able to convince Gheorghe to forgive him and return? The film draws you in; like beauty, you know authenticity when you see it. And credit for this must go to the two lead actors and their director’s vision. Both men worked on separate farms for a couple of weeks before filming. As a result, everything they do on the farm in the film is real. Lee also kept the two actors separate until they met on screen so that the camera could capture their initial awkwardness.

Josh O’ Connor deservedly won the best rising actor BAFTA award that year. His transformation from an awkward man with dead fish eyes who barely looks up, to a man in love is transfixing. The tenderness and pride in his face when he tells his grandma that Gheorghe made cheese is one example of his acting prowess. O’Connor makes us feel Johnny’s physical pain as he struggles to express his feelings.         

Alec Secăreanu as Gheorghe is the perfect foil to Johnny; gentle yet tough. He is the self-assured anchor Johnny needs. Gheorghe’s comfort and tenderness with animals are important for the film to work, and it is impressive that city-bred Secăreanu learned to even deliver a calf and skin a dead lamb effortlessly after working on a farm for just a couple of weeks. Although Lee’s method directing style of putting his actors through such grueling farm schedules may seem over the top, it was intentional. He wanted their physical exhaustion to show on screen and make them open to love’s warmth. Much has been made about the film’s explicit sex scenes, but as O’Connor points out, the audience always sees Johnny up close. And Johnny’s transformation would not be convincing unless we also see it reflected in his most intimate activity, like sex. 

The two supporting actors, Ian Hart, and Gemma Jones are also top-notch. As the incapacitated farmer, Hart does not have much dialogue and deftly uses his physical infirmities to convey his emotions. One of the film’s memorable scenes is his shaky thank you to his son, who is bathing him. Gemma Jones plays the long-suffering yet dutiful grandmother with the right mix of frustration and love. Although they do not verbally express their feelings, it is moving to see Johnny’s father and grandmother eventually only wanting him to be happy. 

Joshua James’ camera captures the breathtaking beauty of Yorkshire without glossing over the fact that making a living from the land is arduous work. In line with the film’s message about hope, the movie’s lighting subtly becomes brighter after Gheorghe enters Johnny’s life. The film was also painstakingly edited. Director Lee says in an interview that he was adamant about not repeating emotions, and even good scenes were cut if they did not portray a unique emotion. Apparently, a compelling scene of the two men eating cheese was cut because there is an earlier scene of them having dinner together. The film is a confident labor of love, unpretentious and unrelenting, whether it is its hard-to-understand Yorkshire dialect or the harsh landscapes; the audience must go to the film and embrace it, but the payoffs are worth it, like true love.     

Why watch it? To reaffirm your belief in love’s transformative powers and savor the hard-earned happy ending. 

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