God’s Own Country is a phrase that well describes the charm and the strength of the countryside in England, with its rolling green hills and rich inheritance of weathered buildings that please the ‘eye’. It is also the title of a new British movie commencing in Australia on August 31, 2017.
Yorkshire-born actor and director Francis Lee has created an unsentimental, sensual and extremely intimate portrait of a withdrawn young man who is struggling with all the fates until his life suddenly changes forever.
Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu feature in this true to life love story, which is emotionally generous and has an intelligent script.
It is unselfconsciously presented by its two main leads, who deliver very fine performances. Their gentle heart warming romance is related through agonisingly beautiful close ups, filmed with great affection and care by Cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers!
The idealisation of a life spent in the remoteness of the countryside has never really been one shared by those who work the land for a living; it’s a construct of those living in cities. For centuries city people believed those who lived a rural life were privileged.
The reality however is very different. For some the struggle daily to just survive can become individually overwhelming at times. Being told to ‘get on with it’ or being expected to be stoic was an attitude in society integral to post WWI, the Depression and WWII. It continued to resonate for a very long time.
This is how it is for John Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young man for whom life has delivered a hard blow. He has had to give up his own dreams of going to university with his friends and take on the responsibilities of adulthood when his father, a farmer on good land in West Yorkshire, has a stroke.
John is now an angry young man; angry at his father (Ian Hart) for being crippled, angry at his Nan (Gemma Jones) who picks up after him and despairingly looks after them both, angry at the mother who left them both a long time ago, and angry his life has been planned out for him.
He’s lost sight of both beauty and hope. In an endeavour to dull his pain and frustration, at night he drinks to excess at the local pub. He also smokes pot and has casual sex in the back of a van with a local lad before staggering home to fall asleep in his clothes, waking up each morning throwing up.
It’s not a pretty picture and the distressful aspects of it all, impact on his Nan Deidre Saxby (Gemma Jones). She is at somewhat of a loss to know how to help him through the trauma that has become his life in a household where caring has for so long has only been expressed through hard back breaking work.
Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is a good looking young Romanian itinerant worker, hired by his father against Johnny’s wishes, who comes to spend a few weeks on the farm to help him out at lambing time.
Picking him up at the station and installing him unceremoniously and without nary a kind word in a poky small caravan in the yard, the repressed Johnny stumbles off to bed after telling Gheorghe he will wish he had stayed in Romania.
There are endless chores to be done and when he comes out of his self-imposed stupour Johnny realises Gheorghe is gay too and tries to jump his bones, only to be rejected. However he is given a promise it may happen if and when the Romanian believes the timing is right.
Gheorghe is a young man who knows what beauty and love are all about and as the two work together in the harsh conditions, Johnny begrudgingly learns to respect the wondrous skill and care he takes with the animals, especially when they camp out up on the moors to attend to the lambing.
Gheorghe helps a sheep give birth and when it dies he begins to hand raise its lamb. A night or two later another sheep loses its lamb and quietly taking its little body, he dispassionately skins it quickly and lays its fleece over that of his orphaned lamb, to ensure the grieving mother accepts it as her own.
Unlike his English counterpart Gheorghe gives himself a sponge bath each day and it leads to an intensive sexual encounter between them both. One man sees the beauty, but also the loneliness felt by the other.
Showing great patience and care, Gheorghe gradually teaches John Saxby who has never known real intimacy, not only the joy of love but also about how to make love.
Their idyll however is about to end when they arrive back at the farm to find Johnny’s father has had a second stroke and is in hospital. Now the responsibility of the farm is solely on Johnny Saxby’s shoulders at a time for him when life has begun to change. Nan meanwhile sits silently by her son’s bed at the hospital wondering if he will live or die.
With both his Nan and father away at home Johnny suddenly encounters flowers on the table for the first time, as Gheorghe plates up pasta for two.
The two lovers bathe together and work the farm together. Gheorghe milks a sheep to make cheese, which he believes Johnny could do to value add to the family income. It’s a blessed moment of domestic bliss, one that abruptly ends when Nan comes home and tells Johnny it is time he faced facts, his Dad is not going to get any better.
As the reality sinks in that his father will now be completely incapacitated, Johnny allows himself to descend back into chaos once more. Dragging Gheorghe to the pub he leaves him alone as he falls back into the pattern of casual sex in the toilet, although this time witnessed by the distraught Gheorghe who packs up and leaves.
The next morning having revived from his chaotic episode Johnny finds Gheorghe gone. He knows the trust between them has been broken and he’s suddenly full of pain and remorse, uncertain about his emotions and what they mean.
Concentrating on helping his father to bathe and eat over the next few days, he learns how to handle him carefully for the first time, expressing gentle love through his own actions.
He realizes he doesn’t want to carry on as before and so he leaves the farmhouse with his father’s blessing to go and find Gheorge, who has taken work in Scotland. He wants to ask him to come back and share his life into the future.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
God’s Own Country
Joshua James Richards