God's Own Country

GOC-rev God’s Own Country  (2017)    Samuel Goldwyn/Drama    RT: 104 minutes    No MPAA rating (strong graphic sexual content, graphic nudity, language, thematic elements)    Director: Francis Lee    Screenplay: Francis Lee    Music: A Winged Victory for the Sullen    Cinematography: Joshua James Richards    Release date: November 10, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart.     

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 God’s Own Country, a gay love story set in the rough and untamed Yorkshire countryside, weaves a kind of hypnotic spell over the viewer. It draws you so deep into its world of rural settings and mean skies, you can almost smell the mud and muck the characters slog through on a daily basis. This is where writer-director Francis Lee’s movie succeeds the most.

 Last week in my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I talked about no longer succumbing to peer pressure when writing up movies that everybody but me seems to like. I had no problem blasting the oh-so-pretentious The Square. God’s Own Country, on the other hand, is proving difficult. It has many good points. It’s beautifully shot, the performances are quite good and the subject matter is sensitively handled. However, it’s also slow-moving and has the power to lull viewers to sleep regardless of whether or not they’re sleep-deprived. I feel guilty saying it’s boring but it’s the truth. It doesn’t mean God’s Own Country is bad as is normally the case with dull movies. In this case, the opposite is true; it’s a good movie. It simply moves too slowly; I do get what Lee is going for though. I get why it moves at the pace it does. Feelings should NEVER be rushed. God’s Own Country is all about feelings. Ergo, it takes its time getting to where it’s going.

gods own country Don’t be fooled by first impressions; they can be misleading as is the case with God’s Own Country. The first thing we see is the main character Johnny (O’Connor) hunched over a toilet puking. He was out drinking heavily the night before and one gets the impression that this is how he normally starts his day. There’s not much else to do in his small rural village other than get drunk at the local tavern. Come morning, he looks and feels like hell but it doesn’t excuse him from his obligations. Presently, he’s running the family farm. He has no choice. His father Martin (Hart, Backbeat) had a stroke and his grandmother Deidre (Jones, Bridget Jones’s mum) is too old. This explains why Johnny always looks miserable and beaten down by the world. Compounding his misery is the fact that he’s gay. He engages in rough sex with strangers on the DL. Coming out is not an option as his family and neighbors aren’t what you’d call tolerant or enlightened.

 With birthing season approaching, Martin decides it would be prudent to hire extra help. The only one who applies is Gheorghe (Secareanu), a Romanian immigrant who knows a lot about farming and other things. Martin sends them to a remote area of the farm to take care of the ewes and repair a boundary wall that Johnny’s been promising to fix. At first, the two men don’t get along. Gheorghe objects to Johnny always referring to him as a “gypsy”. One day he finally snaps and attacks Johnny. Their fight turns into a session of rough sex. Afterwards, they try unsuccessfully to deny their true feelings for each other but they eventually give in and admit to each other how they feel. Okay, great. But will they last? The odds aren’t in their favor with the prevailing xenophobia and homophobia where they live. Also, there’s no way Johnny’s family will accept the situation.

 WOW! That’s what I have to say about Joshua James Richards’ amazing cinematography. I like the whole look of God’s Own Country even though it’s not always pleasant to look at. Life on the farm is depicted in vivid detail. The shot of a half-dead newborn calf is particularly disturbing. Johnny himself isn’t so pretty either. When we first see him in the cold light of morning (after a night of drinking), he looks like death barely warmed over. Who would possibly want to get with him other than random guys he picks up at stock auctions? They have nasty sex and never see each other again. Then Gheorghe comes along and things change. Suddenly, there’s beauty to the world, mainly in the wild landscape that surrounds them as they explore their feelings and each other. Like their passion, it cannot be tamed. The Northern England scenery is, at once, intense and breathtaking.

 God’s Own Country benefits from solid performances from a talented cast. O’Connor nails it as Johnny, a young man living a life that makes him deeply unhappy. He has to hide who he is from everybody. He can’t leave because of his familial obligations. He’s stuck in his life. As Gheorghe, Secareanu is terrific. He has these rugged matinee idol looks and an easy charm but there’s something beneath the surface, a thoughtfulness and sense of compassion. The latter can be seen in the way he cares for the animals in his charge. Hart and Jones work well together. They’re totally believable as rural folk who think no further than their daily routine. Hart’s character is miserable yet not maudlin when it comes to his physical affliction.

 Be warned that the sex scenes in God’s Own Country are quite rough and quite graphic. Some will surely feel uneasy watching them. I have to admit the frankness with which they’re depicted caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting that. I observed one patron leave during a particularly rough scene where Johnny and Gheorghe do it in the mud. I would have loved to ask him why he left. I wanted to ask why he came to see it in the first place knowing what it was about. I wanted to ask if he’d feel the same way if the same scene involved two women. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think that conversation would go anyplace good.

 So the question of whether or not I like God’s Own Country remains. Artistically, I think it’s very well-made. I like that it handles its subject matter openly, honestly and sensitively. It’s not always easy to watch but good cinema is like that. Things don’t always have to be sunny and happy. Life sure isn’t. My only real problem with God’s Own Country is the pacing. I understand why it’s like that; it just makes it a chore to stay awake. For whatever reason, it has somewhat of a relaxing effect. I can’t explain it. What I can say is that it’s a fairly solid debut for first-time feature filmmaker Lee. I can also say it reminds me of Brokeback Mountain and Beach Rats (to a certain degree). Finally, I’ll say that it’s good (not great) cinema but not the film to see if you’re looking for something light-hearted. 

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