Stark Beauty in God’s Own Country

Although the craggy Yorkshire landscape could easily have dominated this film, instead it provides an excellent backdrop to the delicate human story at play. God’s Own Country tells the story of Johnny Saxby, a man who exploits his position on an isolated country farm to impose emotional distance on everyone he meets. Until Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker, comes to help out during lambing season.

As I’m sure you can guess, Johnny is resistant to help. God’s Own Country has a lot to say about the emotional repression enforced on men within the patriarchal system. Before discussing the romance that sparks between Johnny and Gheorghe, it’s important to explore Johnny’s relationship with his father.

Martin Saxby is a proud man whose age has robbed him of his ability to continue running the farm through gritted teeth and elbow grease. Early on in the film, Johnny is unreliable, choosing booze and casual sex over his responsibilities. Martin warned him that one of their cows is soon to calf and she’ll need help which he won’t be able to give. Johnny lets Martin down and when he arrives the poor calf is already unmoving on the barn floor. While Martin berates Johnny on the basis that the bull calf had broad shoulders and would have sold at a good price if he’d survived, the real argument takes place in the tense air between them. Martin is embarrassed that he couldn’t birth a cow, something he has done unassisted for decades. His frustration that he had to ask for help dwarfs his frustration that he didn’t receive it.

When Johnny bumps into a friend from school who is back during college off-season, his resentment for his father’s infirmity, his living situation and his bland country life pulse throughout the scene, all unspoken.

So when soulful, empathetic Gheorghe arrives, naturally Johnny creates a country-mile between them by immediately calling him a gypsy.

For Johnny and Gheorghe, everything is a struggle from their first few conversations, to their tryst in the mud, before they eventually start to build a foundation. The struggle comes from Johnny, who seems to be wrestling with all of the realities of his life including his home on the farm and his sexuality. Johnny’s relationship with his sexuality is complex; he seems perfectly comfortable with casual sex but refuses any attempts at intimacy or connection his partners attempt and this runs deeper than a desire to hide or deny his identity.

The affection that develops between Johnny and Gheorghe is a slow burn, it doesn’t happen as dramatically as we might expect given the striking landscape. Gheorghe’s maturity and strong sense of self allow him to let Johnny come to him, the way you might hold out a hand to deer and stay perfectly still until they feel comfortable enough to get close. Francis Lee underlines this dynamic using Gheorghe’s affinity with animals. Johnny has no sentimentality towards animals whatsoever initially, but when Gheorghe revives a lamb and successfully persuades a ewe who has lost her own lamb to care for it, Johnny starts to develop more empathy which carries over into their relationship as Johnny becomes more affectionate and begins to kiss and caress Gheorghe which he hadn’t previously.

This leads to a beautiful scene between Johnny and his father after Martin suffers a stroke and needs help bathing. Johnny insists he can bathe him without Deirdre’s help but this is not a resistance to help, he is recognising his father’s embarrassment and trying to preserve his dignity.

Considering this is Lee’s first feature-length film, God’s Own Country is all the more impressive. The Spring setting was an apt choice as the season is often associated with renewal and revival which is perfect for Johnny’s movement from toxic isolation to warmth. This film is threadbare and stark but it provides genuine heart and warmth, exactly like Gheorghe’s woven jumper. 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

About Jess Dunne

Jess is an English with Film grad with a healthy respect for the big Blockbusters and other such entertainment 'fluff'. Who says pleasures have to be guilty?

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