Wednesday, September 06, 2017

God's Own Country

The first time we see Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) in God's Own Country, he's hunched over the toilet bowl, throwing up the previous night's booze. This, we soon learn, is not an unusual occurrence. Ever since his father (Ian Hart) suffered a debilitating stroke, Johnny has been running the family’s farm almost single-handed, and his few hours of freedom are spent drinking himself into oblivion and picking up men for fleeting sexual encounters. When one of them suggests meeting up for a drink some time and furthering their relationship, Johnny scoffs and drives away. There’s no emotional connection in these meetings for him. They’re simply a form of release.

Johnny is clearly a young man in need of a release. His body is coiled and hunched, and he trudges through the fields scowling, with his head down. Josh O'Connor's withdrawn but wonderfully physical performance expresses all of his resentment, frustration and repression through the way he moves, and one of the joys of watching God's Own Country is seeing him unfurl and grow over the course of the movie, until he appears to be an entirely different person, yet recognisably the same.

The catalyst for this transformation is Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a migrant worker hired for a week to help lighten Johnny's burden. Johnny reacts to this outsider with suspicion – dismissing the Romanian as a “gypsy” - but when they spend a few nights together alone on the mountain, where they have been sent to mend a fence and birth the lambs, the relationship between them gradually shifts into a quiet tolerance, an easy companionship, and then a sudden explosion of passion.

Comparisons between God's Own Country and Brokeback Mountain are as prevalent as they are reductive, and I don't wish to belabour the point, but as I watched Francis Lee's film I was put in mind of that story – not the 2005 adaptation, as such, but the original short story by Annie Proulx. “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey,” she writes, “of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” As admirable as it was, Ang Lee's production could never come close to capturing such an evocative sense of post-coital intimacy, but Francis Lee invests his film with a wonderful tactility and earthiness. Johnny and Gheorghe's first coupling, as they grapple in the mud, feels raw and urgent, but it's the more tender touches that fix themselves in the memory. Johnny's first instinct is to reach for Gheorghe's cock, but Gheorghe repeatedly stops him and instead brings up his hand to caress his cheek, encouraging him to let down his guard and give in to his emotions. The moment works beautifully because Lee has already allowed us to see  Gheorghe's nurturing instinct as we watched him at work, whether he's tending to a newborn lamb or offering Johnny his gloves as they build a stone wall. Lee uses work as an expression of character.

The two leads are wonderful together, but it's a perfect ensemble. Ian Hart is stoic and moving as the gruff patriarch whose power has been diminished by a series of strokes, while Gemma Jones gives a brilliantly subtle display as the grandmother who sees and understands more than she lets on. Both actors have a moment in which they reveal hitherto concealed emotions, and both of these moments are underplayed to heart-wrenching effect. This is Francis Lee's feature debut but he handles it with unerring confidence and skill. He began his career in front of the camera and he clearly knows how to work wonders with actors, just as he clearly understands this land and the lives that are lived upon it. God's Own Country may follow some conventions of the romantic drama, but every scene is invested with a sense of authenticity and passion that ensured I spent much of the final third yearning for a Hollywood ending to emerge in the midst of the Yorkshire Dales, having been drawn so completely into the lives of these people.