As queer cinema continues to expand, so too do the stories it is capable of telling and the voices that emerge to tell them. It seems that each year brings a new film and voice to celebrate, opening up the queer narrative from the restrictive cultural and gender parameters into a cinematic landscape that is eclectic, surprising and wondrous. In the wake of the Oscar-winning triumph of 'Moonlight' are a number of new queer films, many of them screening as part of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival, and one of those - 'God's Own Country', the feature debut from British director Francis Lee - takes a narrative we think we may have seen before and weaves it into something distinct, deeply personal and utterly breathtaking.
Young Yorkshire farmer Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) is burdened with the responsibility of running the family farm after his father Martin (Ian Hart) suffers a stroke. Frustrated and riddled with self-loathing, Johnny finds escape in binge drinking and casual sexual encounters with other men, avoiding any form of intimacy or affection from even his own family. To help with the lambing season, Martin hires Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help on the farm. Initially hostile to one another, Johnny and Gheorghe slowly begin to fall for one another, a relationship that will cause a seismic shift for Johnny and his future.
Crafted with singular vision, tremendous skill and enormous humanity, 'God's Own Country' is a film of overwhelming beauty. It feels weird to be breaking down all its elements, partly because every single one of them is in perfect balance, but mostly because of the enormous emotional impact it has, an indescribable mix of heartache, hope and joy. Francis Lee's command of his craft and of the storytelling is staggering, the kind of debut film that instantly places him as a major emerging talent. Not a word or a beat of his screenplay is out of place, a simplicity that gives the space for the characters and images to breathe. From the moment he appears, your heart breaks for Johnny, a startling figure of self-hatred hell-bent on bringing about his own destruction. He has fashioned an existence devoid of affection, crafted a heart of stone in order to protect himself. The clash against the tenderness of Gheorghe is initially enormous, but as this new force in his life slowly wears down that armour, we are gifted with moments of tenderness and openness of the kind of potency you rarely see on film. Lee constructs the film around a series of repeated motifs, mostly around the sense of touch, and as the language of the film and these motifs develop, their impact grows to a point of emotional ecstasy. This sense of physical connection extends past just Johnny and Gheorghe and into Johnny's relationship with his family, both Martin and his grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones), making this in many ways (much like 'Moonlight') more than a "queer film". It's about the effect of crippling masculinity, of the hardening of men to protect themselves from heartache when they are expected to be immune to it, and the often violent repercussions of that protection.
Vital to that is the romance between Johnny and Gheorghe, one of the most carefully constructed I've seen on film in a very, very long time. Lee gives the characters the space for their connection to develop, but perhaps the greatest surprise is the trajectory of it. Most queer narratives would require Johnny to leave the farm in order to be happy as a gay man, and Johnny certainly seems aware of this. He is a figure torn between two worlds that he can't see as working together, his attraction to other men and his commitment to the farm, but the miracle of his connection with Gheorghe is that he offers the chance for those two worlds to come together. And Lee makes sure we feel the same way - the Yorkshire landscape is as integral a character as the lone figures who move across it, captured with raw beauty by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The depiction of farm life is direct and realistic, and most importantly, not fetishised at all. We watch animals born and animals die, we feel the wet and the cold and the mud, but at no point is this presented as a negative, as a thing Johnny wants to escape; the only thing he wants to escape is himself. It is his world, built into the pores of his skin and quickly into Gheorghe's, so much so that we want them to make their life there together. By showing us a homosexual relationship within the world of a rural community in the way that he does, Lee dramatically shifts the lens of queer cinema and lends that world and those relationships the respect they deserves.
Crafted with singular vision, tremendous skill and enormous humanity, 'God's Own Country' is a film of overwhelming beauty.
As Johnny, Josh O'Connor delivers one of the most devastating performances in years, erupting with pain, fury and fear. He is a wild animal, intensely protective, and O'Connor's commitment to the intensity of Johnny's self-hate is at times almost too heartbreaking to watch. It is an enormously brave performance, not because of the circumstances of the character, but in how honest, raw and open he is. He is matched by every turn by Alec Secareanu's equally beautiful performance as Gheorghe, his tender masculinity and openness hiding a deep love for nature and a longing for a home he will never see again. These two young men connect in their individual sadness and find salvation in one another, and the chemistry between O'Connor and Secareanu is the stuff of dreams. Once you see them onscreen together, it only makes every moment they don't share the frame together all the more powerful.
I wish more cinema made me feel the way this film made me feel. My heart ached with longing and with joy, overwhelmed by the naked emotion and enormous integrity of it. It left me sobbing and shaking for all the right reasons. It made me happy to be alive, happy to be in love, even miss the farm where I grew up. 'God's Own Country' is a miracle of a film, a quiet masterpiece that holds you enraptured from beginning to end by its beauty and its humanity. Francis Lee has made an indelible impact on both British cinema and queer cinema, his deeply personal and highly accomplished film also showcasing two incredible performances. To have had both 'God's Own Country' and 'Moonlight' in the same year is almost too much for my heart to bear.