Film Review: God's Own Country

Dour in the extreme but also pretty damn sexy, this rural gay romance will certainly have its specialized audience appeal, without the big crossover of the great 'Moonlight.'
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Boy, if you thought Brokeback Mountain was one uber-butch gay love story, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had nothing on Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu in Francis Lee’s debut feature, God’s Own Country. O’Connor plays Johnny, a hard-drinking, alienated, basically miserable young guy toiling on his family’s sheep farm in  Yorkshire. The seemingly eternally gray atmosphere of his muddy, sweaty world is not leavened by the dour presence of his stern, thin-lipped grandmother (Gemma Jones) and forbiddingly strict father (Ian Hart, quietly powerful).

Into Johnny’s life steps Gheorghe (Secareanu), a handsome, itinerant hired hand from Romania, and after a warily hostile beginning with some nasty, racist aggression on the part of Johnny, guess what happens? The strapping lads’ burgeoning love has its serious challenges, however: the necessity of its being covert, Johnny’s dad succumbing to a disabling stroke, not to mention Johnny’s own non-evolvement regarding his sexuality. (His internalized hatred has him initially indulging in callous, casual sex with a local boy he otherwise refuses to acknowledge.)

The best thing about this solemn-to-the-point-of-grim saga are the performances and Joshua James Richards‘ often gorgeous cinematography, apprehending sylvan beauty in the stark, seaside terrain. The entire cast underplays things gracefully, which lends impressive authenticity to their portrayals of country folk who keep their cards close to their chests and, as they say in farm country here, don’t like to chew their cabbage twice. Unfortunately, they are also all too much of a piece with this gay romance that seems almost fiendishly determined to be anything but gay, in the original, lighthearted sense of that word. The grueling hardship of rural life is hammered home repeatedly; in one typical scene, Johnny reaches deep into a poor animal’s hindquarters to pull out a dead calf.

What few moments of joy there are are provided by the refreshingly candid sex scenes between the comely leads (although O’Connor’s manicured, metrosexual eyebrows are quite distracting, given the rural sort he’s playing), laced with full-frontal nudity that may shock some American viewers. Here is where the film truly veers from Brokeback, that “gay” film made by straights like Ang Lee, who told this writer he let his hetero stars work out their sex scene “because I’m too shy to deal with that.”

Despite its limited action, dramatic repetitiveness and excessive length, God’s Own Country does begin to grow on you by its final third, and its climax, when emotion finally wells up, is irresistibly affecting. You’ve spent so much time with these amorous farmers, it’s hard not to wish the best for them.

Click here for cast and crew information.