In a small town in rural Yorkshire, the running of his family's farm rests almost solely to Johnny (Josh O'Connor) due to his father's recent stroke and his grandmother's age. With little time to socialise, few remaining friends and a strained relationship with his father, Johnny fills his spare time with excessive drinking and rough sex with strangers. When Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant, is drafted to help at the farm, hostility between the pair is clear due to their opposing backgrounds and obvious differences. However, as they spend more time in each other's company, feelings begin to develop that could change their whole lives.
God's Own Country is an incredibly raw, stirring and potent piece of British film-making. The extreme gentleness of the love at the story's centre is contrasted with the harsh backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside, allowing the film to form an identity of its own; instead of simply becoming another 'coming out' film, it find a refreshing new angle to begin its exploration. Infused into the film's landscape is a sophisticated consideration of a set of timely themes, including migration into a narrow-minded society, which only add to the film's individuality. God's Own Country delves not too far past surface level for its innovation but it truly makes the world of difference to the outcome, pushing it past your more bog-standard, chained-to-conventions genre pieces.
It's a rather fine balancing act actually, and the film's writer-director manages it admirably well. Swirling in the background of the picture is an abundance of interesting elements (the bitterness of Yorkshire's country and social environment; the fall-out of Brexit; family hardships and difficult circumstance) that help to texture the film's landscape and the character’s struggles. Despite the wealth of thematic material though, Lee's undeniable focus is always on the characters. In his writing, autobiographical in parts, Lee infuses subtle and delicate flourishes to showcase the natural development of these characters - Gheorghe's nurturing tactics compared to Johnny's hard-hearted methods, the way the former teaches the latter how to open his heart and the realisation something passionate is brewing between them - and by the time the credits roll, we feel that we genuinely know them. That's a mighty big task to conquer and Lee does it with relative ease.
It would be impossible for Lee to achieve this without two talents for the audience to anchor themselves to though - he finds exactly that and more in O'Connor and Secareanu. Johnny's journey from anger, loneliness and frustration to love, belonging and acceptance is brought to life stunningly by O'Connor's textured performance, demonstrating Johnny's crumbling facade skilfully and emotionally. It is achingly beautiful and we truly see the change in his character from beginning to end, controlled masterfully by O'Connor's performance.
This change is facilitated by Secareanu's Gheorghe. Nurturing and cultivating this growth, he encourages an acceptance that Johnny could never have come to terms with without Gheorghe teaching him how to. He's gentle and considerate with his love and allows Johnny to finally appreciate intimacy and affection. You genuinely believe their love and what their relationship represents (a meeting of minds, a bridge between backgrounds) on a grander scale - I can't see it happening but I would love to see some deserving award recognition for the pair. Two truly beautiful performances exists within this picture and understandably becomes the film’s emotional calling card.
While a bugbear of mine found itself cropping up a little too frequently in the first act - an over reliance on common colloquialism and phrases, actually serving as a detriment of the film as they became more grating - the film powers through and finds its own footing as Johnny and Gheorghe spend more time with each other. Lee recognises that the film shines brightest in the tender moments shared between the couple and incorporates more of them into the middle of the feature; it's no fluke then that this middle section is the strongest of the three.
Lee's direction and writing is confident and assured, an outstanding achievement in his first venture into feature-length territory, with a keen eye for detail and symbolism. With God's Own Country, he envisions a tender, heartfelt and stirring story of love, acceptance and crumbling facades sold to us through his writing, direction and two fantastic lead performances. Contrasting the tenderness of their love against the harsh (but beautiful) Yorkshire backdrop allows God's Own Country to stand out from other LGBT pictures by framing it in a new, artistic and bold light. Maybe it could have strayed from the narrative conventions and structure a little more, but as it discovers its strengths a truly lovely, captivating, emotional and timely film emerges that wins your heart over with ease and affection.
Summary: God's Own Country is a stirring, brilliantly-acted and confident feature-length debut from Francis Lee, who contrasts his film’s tender love story with a thematic and geographical harshness, framing conventions in a new, refreshing and artistic light.