God’s Own Country

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  God’s Own Country
 

Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) works the family farm in Yorkshire for his now-invalid father (Ian Hart), binge drinks and looks for casual sex in town. Lambing season arrives and a Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), is hired to help out. The new arrival is the catalyst that makes Johnny want to change his ways in “God’s Own Country.”

Robin:
First time feature writer/director Francis Lee borrows from Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain (2005)” in his story of a troubled, un-tethered young man who must face responsibility for his family, the farm and, ultimately, himself. Johnny does not care about anything except his own pleasures – booze and sex. Then, Gheorghe arrives.

At first, Johnny’s natural contrariness and general hostility make him keep the new worker at arm’s length. Gheorghe proves very capable and the two young men begin to work together. Then, the pair has to take the sheep to a remote grazing area and camp out on the rugged hillside to keep an eye on the flock. Soon, a rough romance ensues and we see Johnny begin to change his ways

But, Johnny is Johnny and, when he gets piss-drunk at the local pub, he has a bathroom dalliance with another patron. Gheorghe sees the peccadillo taking place and leaves. Johnny has not a clue, later, when the hired hand abruptly leaves. Things turn out pretty much as expected for the new life partners.

“God’s Own Country” is a well-crafted, well-written and convincingly acted, particularly by the two leads and Ian Hart and Gemma Jones as Johnny’s grandmother. The look of the film fits the rugged locale of Yorkshire, England and shows the tough life of the locals. I give it a B.

Laura:
After his father, Martin (Ian Hart, "Backbeat"), suffers a stroke, the responsibility for running the family's Yorkshire sheep farm falls mainly on 24 year-old Johnny Saxby's (Josh O'Connor, "Florence Foster Jenkins") shoulders.  His father and grandmother Deidre (Bridget Jones's mum, Gemma Jones) are furious about Johnny's binge drinking and would be even more disturbed if they knew about his homosexuality, their boy partaking of rough, anonymous gay sex.  But when a Romanian immigrant, Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), arrives to help with the lambing, Johnny learns about compassion and so much more in "God's Own Country."

Writer/director Francis Lee makes an impressive feature debut with this unconventional love story, one in which passionate sex evolves into a love which radiates into all aspects of its protagonist's life.  The gorgeous natural setting is bracing and stark, its beauty often obscured to those dependent upon it for their living.  Lee may succumb to the 'Magical Negro' trope, his Romanian adding grace to everything in his path, but Secareanu humanizes him, the immigrant's tale adding political subtext.

Johnny is introduced vomiting, his grandmother warning she's not about to clean up his mess again.  At a cattle auction, eye contact with a trainee auctioneer (Harry Lister Smith, "Pan") results in a quick hookup with no eye contact, Johnny rejecting the young man immediately after fulfilling his needs.  He's hostile to Gheorghe, asking the man if he's a Paki, then taunting him with 'Gypo.'  But when the men head out to the moors to tend to lambing, Gheorghe's gentle competency begins to win Johnny over.  He's drawn to the man.  They act on their impulses physically.  Johnny's beginning to feel something.  Upon their return, Martin suffers a second stroke.  With Deidre tending to her son in the hospital, Johnny and Gheorghe enjoy domestic utopia, Johnny suggesting the Romanian stay on.

But Johnny has yet to face the reality that his father will no longer be any help at all and when his grandmother dishes cold truths, old avoidance tactics resurface.  Gheorghe, hurt and disgusted, leaves, but Johnny's changed, kindness enveloping the Saxby household. But Gheorghe's absence has Johnny distraught enough to take a big risk.

Lee had his actors participate in all the farming jobs they perform on screen, Secareanu at one point skinning a dead lamb, his purpose a surprisingly emotional moment.  O'Connor is mesmerizing as the joyless, gruff Johnny, his metamorphosis moving to watch (the actor wobbles once, too sophisticated for his character in one late scene).  Secareanu, such a remarkable contrast, 'tames' his screen lover with quiet sensitivity.  Hart is an affecting stroke victim, his anger at his lot palpable, his eventual acceptance another emotional moment.

"God's Own Country" is like the rural equivalent of Britain's kitchen sink dramas of the 50's and 60's, but Lee's compassionate film offers redemption.

Grade:  B+
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