It doesn’t seem possible that director Francis Lee could have timed his debut feature film any better. Whether by design or incredible fortune, God’s Own Country seems to encapsulate the political and societal confusion of the post-Brexit era. There are no ham-fisted metaphors here, just a poignant story with roots that delve deep into the British psyche.
God’s Own Country is a tale of identity, of realising who you are with the help of others. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) works on his dad’s farm, dealing with the monotonous routine by drinking heavily and engaging in casual, emotionless sex with anyone he fancies.
Johnny’s dad has recently suffered a stroke, leaving just Johnny and his grandmother (Gemma Jones) to maintain the farm. The youngster’s relentless drinking proves to his father that he can’t manage on his own, so a temporary worker is brought in to fill the void - Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu).
Initially, Johnny is perturbed by the arrival of the foreigner, calling him names and treating him coldly, but soon he feels an attraction brooding within him. Gheorghe reciprocates but isn’t interested in Johnny’s usual standard of relationship, instead teaching Johnny tenderness and patience as the two form an ever-closer union. Only a cataclysmic, unforeseen event can put a dent in the path of their bond - a second stroke suffered by Johnny’s father.
Lee’s film explores what it means to have desire to express yourself, to be bottled up within your own feelings of inadequacy or for fear of derision. The character of Johnny’s grandmother, played wonderfully by Gemma Jones, is a cypher for the quashing of these states of mind, a beacon of acceptance and inclusiveness.
God’s Own Country is a stunning depiction of the harsh Yorkshire countryside, majestic in its wildness, a suitably imposing setting for such a troubled mind as Johnny’s. Lee uses the landscape to significant effect, allowing the windswept moors to create a place of torment where truths cannot be hidden.
Lee’s film is not a polemic in the mould of Ken Loach, rather a much subtler and arguably ambiguous affair. It doesn’t come down harshly on one side of any debate, and it doesn’t really directly engage with any either. Lee has instead found a way to seize a mood.
He’s said in interviews that he wanted his audience to see the world the way he sees it. From this offering, he has proven himself to be an incisive and observant storyteller.