What if I told you that Call Me By Your Name is not the best gay film of 2017? Enter God’s Own Country, one of the most under-promoted and underrated films of 2017. I found out that this film is available on Digital HD and I decided to watch it as a Saturday evening leisure movie. Turns out, I was blown away. This movie is much more than what I expected. I’ve never felt this way towards a movie in a long time, probably since Moonlight, and I could say that this is my favorite movie of 2017.
God’s Own Country, a directorial debut by Francis Lee, follows the story of Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young farmer tending a sheep farm in Yorkshire together with his father (Ian Hart) and his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With the main responsibility of taking care of the farm, he relieves his ennui by heavy drinking in pubs and casual sex with random men. Everything changed when Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is hired to take care of the farm with him. It’s hard to like this movie at first because of the characters’ thick Yorkshire accents and the impression that it is all so mundane — Johnny’s farm job, his repetitive routine, and his initially unlikeable character. It is important to have this establishing status quo in this film because the effects of the rising action of the plot will be more evident, and audiences will have to wait and see what this movie has in store.
One of the first things that intrigued me about this film is its setting, which is in the English countryside. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful landscapes portrayed on film of this setting, yet God’s Own Country tackles it differently. Rather than following other films like Skyfall or Calvary by taking grand long shots of the countryside, Francis Lee focuses more on full/medium shots of the characters interacting with their surroundings. We might be missing out on the sweeping views, but Lee wants his audience to focus on something more important: the characters themselves. In the first act of the film, it shows the loneliness Johnny faces daily in tending the farm, and in the second and the third acts, it shows how Johnny and Gheorghe found themselves in each other despite the vast expanse of the countryside.
Johnny and Gheorghe looking after the farm
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received in writing and composition is to be aware of the purpose of each section of your piece; if someone was to point to a random sentence in it, you have to be able to tell the purpose of that sentence in the context of your whole essay. This rings the same with scenes in movies; an effective film is one which scenes has its own purpose. And, based on that observation, I can say that God’s Own Country is a very effective film. Lee is very delicate and careful in constructing his scenes that audiences can see directly how a certain scene contributes to the whole movie. This is most visible in Lee’s construction of sex scenes. God’s Own Country may have a lot of these kinds of scenes, but unlike other LGBT movies that throw in these scenes that ring über-complicated yet purposeless [cough CMBYN cough Blue is the Warmest Color cough], the sex scenes in God’s Own Country illustrates Johnny’s character development. The first sexual encounter we see in the movie is Johnny’s encounter with a young auctioneer, which is raw, rough, and fast. The second scene is a dream of Gheorghe — a rough and fast one too — when Gheorghe collects his initial observations of Johnny and imagines what would happen to them. The third one shows Johnny making love to Gheorghe, yet Gheorghe shows him that cathartic sex is not always raw and fast, but Gheorghe invites Johnny to feel all the feelings he might experience at that moment. The following scenes focus more on building intimacy than filling the void, and these series of scenes shows how Johnny’s perception of sex and intimacy changes throughout the movie.
Johnny’s character development is much bigger than just intimacy. To start off, Johnny and Gheorghe are two very different individuals. Johnny represses all his emotions, handles his sheep with “fast” solutions such as killing a premature lamb, and is more of a fighter. On the other hand, Gheorghe is more of a lover — he cares towards people and makes sure a newborn lamb does not die as best as he can. However, the common thread these men face is the shroud of masculinity. As shown in the opening scenes, it seems like Johnny has cut off his emotional aspect entirely, and Gheorghe remains quiet and reserved to uphold his reputation. The initial “self-defense” between these two men goes towards the extreme and Johnny started calling Gheorghe all kinds of racial slurs. Gheorghe eventually confronts him and wrestles him to the ground, threatening and asking him to stop using xenophobic slurs on him. This scene is weirdly the first point of intimacy for these characters, with their noses only less than an inch apart — which probably leads Gheorghe to his dream. Since then, their walls slowly crumble down. By getting to know one another, they are also putting down their shroud of masculinity, being able to show their true selves (and bringing Johnny his emotional channel back) without being prejudiced by others.
The most important aspect that makes this film successful is the fact that it’s true to the heart. This film does not meta-address the topic of homosexuality; our two main characters never talk about the fact that they are gay. It dwells more on the importance of love, and it pushes the audience to see this not as a gay story, but a love story. It focuses on the feelings you might feel when you love and be loved in return for the first time. Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu are the main movers of the film, and in a quiet film with such little dialogue, they succeeded in portraying the characters and they also saved a seat for their audience in their emotional journey. Together with the purposeful and careful plot, God’s Own Country‘s creators are successful in immersing the audience in an emotional landscape that is both alien and familiar. They introduce us to Johnny and Gheorghe’s feelings little by little, and through the film’s pacing, we are allowed to simmer into those feelings. We’re all moving in slow motion, and we are welcome to linger, just like how Johnny and Gheorghe did towards their admiration for each other.
Johnny and Gheorghe in my favorite scene of the film
Everything that is good in this film is shown in one great scene — probably the only scene where Lee employed an extreme long shot. Gheorghe leads Johnny out of their responsibilities for a while and paces towards a hill. Johnny follows him, and when they reach their destination, they witness a beautiful view of the Yorkshire countryside. They admire the view, but not long after that, they glance into each other’s eyes, smiling. Finally, their walls are broken, and they can be comfortable with themselves. Johnny and Gheorghe work day by day at the farm, but they never stop to admire the beauty and the landscape that’s all around them. In the great vastness of the Yorkshire countryside, they find their solace inside of each other, which embodies the film’s soul of finding someone to share this big ennui of the world with. And finally, presented with a landscape as vast as the grasp of their newfound romance, they realize that they’re alone, together — still making sense of their grand, perplexing feelings.