The tentative steps towards understanding one's sexuality has been a staple of cinema since sex itself was allowed on-screen. As sexuality has become more fluid, the stories about love from a homosexual perspective have come forward, most prominently Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. This year alone sees the glossy Call Me By Your Name attempt to tell a similar story about first love between two young men, and it is that feature which pairs alongside - and yet is completely removed - from Francis Lee's feature film debut, God's Own Country. The bucolic setting will draw comparisons to Lee's film, but that's it. God's Own Country is a story of intimacy told in the most vulnerable and honest way, with two leading men whose performances cast a new light on the portrayals of masculinity.
John Saxby (Josh O'Connor) is a young man running his father's Yorkshire sheep farm. He spends his nights getting drunk as a means of coping with the stagnation of his life. Things change when his father hires a Romanian man named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help out. John and Gheorghe have a contentious relationship, but after being forced into a remote part of the country they develop a relationship that leaves John questioning everything he knows.
Lee's melodic drama embraces the silence of humanity, how we isolate ourselves from the world and each other. John spends his days caring for his father, slowed down by a stroke, and the family farm. It's evident John does it out of love as much as familial obligation. At night, he sallies down to the local pub for a drink, where he enviously watches friends from high school return to look at the local tourists. Occasionally, he engages in random sexual encounters with other men whom he refuses to take farther than a trailer or a bathroom, refusing invitations for drinks or other forms of connection. For John, he bottles up his regret, anger, and loneliness. O'Connor's performance mimics this powder-keg persona. Akin to Tom Hardy, O'Connor's strapping body belies a personality that's scared but yearning for connection. A sly smile tends to creep from his lips, but it comes at a price for him.
Gheorghe's arrival marks a sea change for John. The two start off on uneven footing, with John making derogatory statements about Gheorghe's ethnicity. As it is with most romantic dramas, thou doth protest too much and the two are quickly whisked away to a remote location. Regardless of the film's similarities to Brokeback. Lee allows the relationship to build between the two. Nearly half the movie is told in silence, with characters assessing their situation, surroundings, and each other. When Gheorghe finally comments on the landscape being "beautiful," it comes after 30 minutes of the audience taking in God's own country on their own.
Lee's camera sweeps over the verdant countryside with a eye as lustful as the two lovers at its center. Several scenes of farmlife - including unsimulated insemination and butchering of animals - is presented in an uncompromising way. It's evident Lee wants the audience to understand the love and determination that John possesses to do this work everyday. It also allows Gheorghe's personality to come through. As he attemps to raise a small lamb, his compassion comes through clearer than any attempts at dialogue. It's also in this Edenic countryside that John and Gheorghe's romance can blossom. The chemistry between the two men is palpable, and the love scenes are just as uncompromising as the depiction of farmlife. John and Gheorghe's first interaction together is muddy and rough, but it allows them to later explore the concept of tenderness and intimacy that comes from simplicity, personal connection and, yes, silence.
Unlike O'Connor, Secareanu is the perfect embodiment of the man anyone - either male or female - would fall for. Like John, Gheorghe is an outcast based on his ethnicity, but he still wants to open himself up to another person. Secareanu exudes a sensuality not unlike veteran actor Alan Bates; the two even share a slight resemblance. Both actors exhibit star-making performances in a film that eschewes showiness in favor of seduction and simplicity. Love doesn't have to be grand gestures, but is often the quiet interactions where another feels you understand them.
God's Own Country is a beautiful, romantic tale that plays out like a poem. The lingering silences and frank sexuality are intermingle in a way that never feels tawdry, and Francis Lee's camera captures every gorgeous second of it.