Though there is little assurance that Johnny and Gheorghe’s romance will last forever, God’s Own Country allows them to hope, something that queer films rarely offer.
The cinematic lives of LGBT+ characters have historically been either traumatic or comedic, particularly when it comes to romance. The most significant queer love stories on film either end tragically in the way of Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don’t Cry or serve as punchlines as they do in The Birdcage. And the source of the pain and of the hysterics is the queerness itself. Even a last year’s groundbreaking Moonlight, an inspiring film in many regards, is largely concerned with the difficulty of personal and societal acceptance of same-sex attraction. So, while it is a success as both a narrative and an overall production, the power of Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is its complex yet hopeful central love story.
The story finds young Englishman Johnny (Josh O’Connor) forced to take on more responsibility on his family’s farm as his father (Ian Hart) takes ill. Johnny, however, has a propensity for partying too much and so his father and grandmother (Gemma Jones) hire Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to assist during lambing season. The instant attraction between Johnny and Gheorghe is palpable but offset by the blatant xenophobia of Johnny and his kin, and is further complicated by Johnny’s self-destructive behavior and the temporary nature of Gheorghe’s employment.
Debut writer-director Francis Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards make Johnny’s Yorkshire gorgeous yet gritty, which makes Johnny’s complicated relationship with his home achingly apparent. He is a man of the country who longs for the physical pleasures of the city. As a result, he occasionally finds rushed, infrequent sexual release with locals but more often finds his relief at the bottom of a pint glass. When Gheorghe and his palpable lust for life appears, Johnny’s equilibrium is undone, a fact complicated by his father’s weakening health.
Love stories often need some kind of adversity to overcome, and it is refreshing that Lee chooses to make the barrier standing in Johnny and Gheorghe’s way something other than a sense of confusion or pain regarding their sexuality. While the event that eventually complicates Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship is traumatic and borne out of Johnny’s self-hatred, it is hatred that comes from circumstance rather than sexuality. O’Connor’s Johnny, emasculated by family and finances, replenishes his self-esteem with sex and Gheorghe discovers this at the worst possible time.
God’s Own Country is a chamber piece, the sum of four great performances and narrowly-focused locations. Both leads give powerful, nuanced performances, with O’Connor beautifully conveying Johnny’s complications and Secareanu immediately demonstrating Gheorghe’s inherent goodness, and they are supported by lived-in, believable performances by Jones (of Bridget Jones fame) and Hart (best known as Quirrell in the Harry Potter films). All four major players are heartbreaking but also hopeful, and their characters feel representative of our modern world.
None of this would mean a thing if the two leads didn’t have serious chemistry. Fortunately, they do, and the heat between Secareanu and O’Connor is given time to simmer before igniting. Too many significant queer films hold back when it comes to representing sexual encounters, but God’s Own Country does not, instead giving abundant and explicit encounters to build not only the central romance but also the importance of sex as a part of Johnny’s character. The only issue in the portrayal of these encounters is a strangely heteronormative approach to the style of the couplings, which undermines the film’s queer approach and is never given enough explanation.
The romance plays out in the beautiful fields of Yorkshire, captured splendidly by Richards. The camera captures the beauty and brutality of modern farm life, and the lensing is aided in abundance by a rousing score composed by classical duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Johnny and Gheorghe fall in love while aiding lambs in the journey from womb to field, and the metaphor of new life is tasteful and appropriate rather than blatant or sentimental.
While God’s Own Country is a film that anyone can and should appreciate, it feels particularly important for LGBT+ audiences to have a cinematic love story that is realistic yet also optimistic. Though there is little assurance that Johnny and Gheorghe’s romance will last forever, God’s Own Country allows them to hope, something that queer films rarely offer.