Ordinary life and repressed emotions on a windswept farm make for an extraordinary film, writes SHELLEY SWEENEY.
I struggled with this film. Not because it wasn’t brilliant. It is brilliant. I struggled because I had a mother of a coughing fit for the first 10 minutes. I spent the next hour with a hand over my throat in case the dreaded cough should return and force me to leave the cinema. I soon realised though, that no coughing fit could compare to the hardship of life on a Yorkshire farm. Ee by gum (OMG).
Life is grim for Johnny. He’s a young gay farmer who feels trapped in a life he didn’t choose. For Johnny, the isolation is crippling. He frequently takes a taxi to the nearest village and spends what little free time he has drinking and sleeping around. It’s a grim life, but there is hope…
Writer/Director Francis Lee grew up on a farm in West Yorkshire. It’s lucky for for us then, that he was allowed to leave the farm and pursue his own interests. It’s his first feature length film, and it’s an absolute triumph of love over adversity.
Johnny’s (Josh O’Connor) mother left the farm when he was a child. He hasn’t seen her since. But rather than make up for the loss of love, his father (Ian Hart) takes a tough approach. Johnny’s grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones) runs the household. She’s equally stern. It’s fascinating to watch these three unhappy people move around each other in their miserable routines.
This is British drama in the vein of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, directors whose portrayals of modern British life feel very real. Life isn’t fair or neat or even necessarily kind, it’s just life. This is the sort of story that I enjoy, where a lot of emotion lies boiling just beneath the surface. It’s like watching a wind-up-toy when it can’t be wound any further: you know that a huge amount of energy is about to be released.
Johnny’s father seethes with disappointment. He doesn’t say a lot but his face is a picture of disdain towards a son too hung-over to work. With lambing season coming up, they get help from young Romanian farmer Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Johnny calls Gheorghe a “lazy gypo”, but that doesn’t stop him from flirting with him after dinner. Gheorghe has clearly had enough racist abuse for one day, and turns him down.
The two young men go up to the top fields where the lambs are soon to be born and take shelter in a ruin. It’s the end of winter, and bitterly cold in Yorkshire. Gheorghe is a natural farmer and Johnny can’t help warming to him. Just a warning for the squeamish out there: the farming scenes are real and at times gruesome. You will actually see sheep giving birth, genuinely aided by the actors who Francis Lee had trained up for the job.
When a relationship develops between the two men, it’s as though spring has arrived. The daylight changes from a cold blue to a warm gold. Johnny becomes gentler and his anger subsides. He falls in love.
Over the next few days, Johnny is forced to reconcile the reality of what he wants with what is expected of him. Johnny was not a likeable character to begin with, but love and obligation change him for the better. Johnny wins me over completely when he makes a heartfelt romantic gesture. He doesn’t quite have the language to say what he feels, and that’s what makes the moment so powerful. His love for Gheorghe has made him a better person. It might be a gritty film, but this is the stuff of Hollywood romance and it made me cry.
In God’s Own Country has been touted as the British Brokeback Mountain and it’s easy to see where the similarities lie. Two men fall in love while working together on a mountain. These are two very different men, getting by in today’s world. They don’t have wives to go home to but their lives are still complicated. While Brokeback Mountain was a sad and beautiful epic tale, with In God’s Own Country we see a whole family transformed by love in one season. It is ordinary and it is beautiful.