Men on the Moors: Francis Lee's 'God's Own Country' finds gay romance on a Yorkshire farm
With God’s Own Country, his first outing as a writer and director, Francis Lee manfully and ambitiously set out to scale an English Brokeback Mountain, succeeding so well he is now coming down the other side with a wheelbarrow full of festival trophies.
The film opened on Sept. 1 to raves in the U.K. and eight weeks later is still playing. In his hometown of Halifax, Lee is proud to say, it’s “the most successful film that cinema has ever shown—it outsold Dunkirk.” Now it’s debuting stateside, bowing today at New York’s IFC Center and at select cinemas across the U.S. in November via Orion Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Since its January unveiling at Sundance where he was named Best Director (World Cinema), Lee’s debut effort has made the festival rounds and picked up prizes at practically every port. IMDb lists nine to date, but Lee thinks that’s a tad short: “Were I a bighead, I’d say it’s now nearer 15.”
One award the film didn’t win (and could have won, if it existed) is for “Best Last Lingering Shot of Love and Reconciliation Between a Single-Sex Couple Since Carol.”
The participants this time are roughhewn men who stubbornly work the equally roughhewn farmland in the north of England. One unhappy heir to a sheep farm, Johnny (Josh O’Connor), dispatches the chores for his ailing father and aging granny as best he can between benders of booze and gay sex, but it’s obvious he needs a deputy, so the family takes out an ad, and up pops a willing Romanian, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). After a round of rough sex, the relationship grows intimate.
Brexit didn’t rear its inhospitable head until the film was essentially finished. “When I wrote the film, I don’t remember any mention of a referendum,” says Lee. “Then I shot it. The morning the referendum was announced, my editor, Chris Wyatt, and I had just cut the film similar to the way it’s being released. We watched it on TV in silence. Then I said, ‘I think we might have made a period piece.’ But we didn’t re-edit it or re-cut it in any way. It just suddenly took on a very different significance.”
As love stories go, this one is stark, Spartan and unsentimental—and not by accident, either: All that goes with the territory. “The inspiration for the film was the landscape,” Lee concedes right off. “That was the starting point, because I grew up there. It’s incredibly freeing and creative and open—but it also felt very problematic and brutal and difficult. I wanted the romance of Johnny and Gheorghe to reflect that landscape—in the farming, in the physicality of the boys, using it as a mirror.”
This primitive Yorkshire terrain previously provided a properly stormy backdrop for Wuthering Heights, so Lee agrees that it has a certain geographical kinship with God’s Own Country (although Joshua James Richards’ unflinching photography of the latter seems a planet away from Gregg Toland’s glamorization for William Wyler). “The moors where the Bronte sisters would go out and not meet men and write about meeting men is where I go walking every day, so it’s a subliminal influence.”
Another influence, particularly in the film’s wrap-up, is James Ivory’s Maurice. “It’s such a great film, and there are so few examples of same-sex relationships ending happily on the screen. In Maurice, I love the idea of them going out in nature to live.”
The first-time filmmaker doesn’t feel this sudden showering of prizes will lead to any severe head-swelling. “I keep them under the bed. I live a very simple life in Yorkshire. My dad is still farming ten minutes down the road, and I pop in and see him every day. The awards arrive at my Dad’s, and he always has to break off working with the sheep to sign for them. That annoys him. I’m very grateful for the awards, but, for me, it’s always about the work. Anything that might translate into helping the work—an awareness of the work for good people to come see it—is fantastic. Each and every one of those awards is important because it helps people find the film. But I find the biggest reward is when somebody comes up to me after a screening and says how the film has emotionally impacted on them, how it resonated with them—whether it’s the love aspect or the landscape. That is lovely.”
It’s not the sort of landscape that’s famous for producing future filmmakers. “I always knew I wanted to write and make films, but, coming from that background, I had no idea how you do that.” Acting was the only thing he could get his head around, so in the late ’80s he went to drama school in London, eventually landing small roles in big films like Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan biography, Topsy-Turvy. “I literally had one line. I was a dresser to the two main actors in the D’Oyly Carte company, played by Timothy Spall and Kevin McKidd. But, mainly, I just did terrible television. I was never a particularly good actor. I was just very lucky, and I worked. But I always had this burning to write and then to direct. I was never confident enough to do it, and I got to a certain age and thought I’m just going to have to do it or shut up.”
So he started small, with short films—one a documentary about his father, The Last Smallholder. “My dad is the last remaining small farmer on the Yorkshire hillside where he lives. He’s still going. It was a very interesting experience making a documentary about your dad. He didn’t like it, and it took me ages to work out why he found it problematic. Then I worked it out, and I understood him more.”
The Last Smallholder also gave Lee his first opportunity to display on the screen the savage countryside of his upbringing, and God’s Own Country sparked an opposite reaction from his father. “He loved it, and he just cried a lot. My dad is really emotional. He’s an emotional farmer. Then we talked about it the day after, and he welled up again and cried some more. And I thought, ‘Oh, for God’s sakes.’
“I made this film because it felt very personal, but it’s not at all autobiographical. It was a world I’d never seen on the screen before. I hadn’t seen rural working-class queers represented on the screen before, and the films I had seen didn’t seem to represent or reflect my particular experience of growing up. That’s why I made this.”
The only “name” actors in his film are the ones playing Johnny’s father and grandmother, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones. He played John Lennon in a couple of BBC movies, she was Bridget Jones’ mother, and both have done Harry Potters.
Lee opted to go with unknowns for the leads. He found O’Connor through a casting director in London and Secareanu through a Romanian one in Budapest.
“I didn’t want to cast anybody famous, because I didn’t want anything to deflect from the film. First of all, I thought Josh was from Yorkshire because his accent was so good, and, second of all, he delivered this incredible, emotionally repressed, difficult reading. It was kind of transfixing. I could see he had very big ears, and I loved that, and I could see he had these big hands that felt like they were a manual laborer’s hands.
“I remember Alec distinctly standing out among the others straight away because, on paper, that character could be two-dimensional. There’s a very tricky line the person playing it has to cross. This character is really very maternal, very caring, but he’s not a pushover, not some flake. And Alec really had that essence in his delivery.
“I knew the film would live or die by the relationship, so I cast Josh and flew Alec and a few other boys over to do chemistry tests. Luckily, my two favorite actors—Josh and Alec—hit it off. I worked with them a couple of hours in the rehearsal room to see how they worked together, and they worked very well together. They pushed each other and supported each other. Then I sent them off for a cup of tea and hid around the corner and watched them. They were clearly getting on very well.”
Lee shot the film chronologically for a variety of reasons. “I felt each scene impacted on the next scene really importantly, and this helped the central relationship. Also, it allowed me to play with the boys a little bit. I kept them separate so they didn’t really work together or know each other until they met onscreen, because I knew it would have an extra bit of frisson, more anticipation and nervousness that would translate into the characters. Once their relationship developed onscreen, I moved them both into the same house, and they developed this incredible friendship.”
The script was written in two weeks, with what seems like two-dozen words. Very little English is spoken in this bucolic world. “For me, I like telling stories with pictures. I’m not a huge fan of telling stories with dialogue. I love subtext.
“But the script is incredibly detailed. Everything you see on the screen is in the script—every look, every touch, everything to do with the animals. It’s all on the page. That goes for the explosion of sex between the two boys. That’s written in detail in the script. It comes back to making a very safe environment for the actors, making sure that they feel fully secure and supported to be vulnerable on the screen. With the intimate scenes, we choreographed those as if they were a dance.
“Nudity in this film was important to the truth. It was always in the script. From the get-go, I’d had conversations when I was casting actors to explain why those scenes were there, what they meant. It wasn’t gratuitous. It was about storytelling.”