About half an hour into God’s Own Country, the feature debut from Francis Lee that premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year and opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, the film veers perilously close to Brokeback Mountain territory. After all, in this poignant narrative about a young man working his family farm in rural England, there’s a herd to tend to and two men alone, out on the pasture to do so.
While the film does go where you think it will go, it thankfully establishes a voice all its own—one that is thoughtful and touching, and maybe even a bit triumphant.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Conner, Florence Foster Jenkins) is, by any definition, a fuck-up. He’s the only son of Martin (Ian Hart, “Boardwalk Empire”), a farmer who, though physically unable to work, keeps on Johnny to run the farm to the rigid standards he expects. Johnny’s grandmother (an always welcome Gemma Jones) keeps the house and contributes to chores around the farm, but it’s Johnny who has to muck out the stalls, give the cows their medication and see to the small herd of sheep. On an errand to a cattle auction, Johnny tends to the business of selling a cow but also sneaks in a tryst in a trailer with a male vet with whom he’s clearly already intimately acquainted. At night, he blows off steam at the local pub, drinking himself into oblivion only to roll out of bed the next morning and do it all over again.
With the herd’s birthing season approaching, Martin hires a migrant farmhand to help in the pastures. Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a new arrival from Romania, couldn’t be more different from the hard-scrabble Johnny, who’s always on the defensive about the cards he’s been dealt and the life he’s stuck living. For Gheorghe, it’s all about the animals and the work. With compassion and patience, he mucks the same stalls and delivers the same medicine; when a lamb he’s birthing arrives as a runt, Johnny brushes the creature off for dead. But Gheorghe delivers mouth-to-mouth (mouth-to-snout?) and revives the poor thing with gentle insistence.
As a film, God’s Own Country flourishes as its central character does: slowly at first, then with confidence and warmth. Out on the pasture, Johnny and Gheorghe bond fiercely and not always smoothly. Their first physical encounter is so fraught with pent-up masculinity that it’s essentially two boys rough-housing in the mud…albeit with their pants off. But this relationship is not exploitative, and it’s a credit to Lee, who also wrote the script, that he never allows it to tip into mawkishness. Instead, Gheorghe’s arrival and affection encourages (perhaps even allows) Johnny to rethink just how much control he has over his own life.
There’s a sweetness to their relationship, a wonder in watching Johnny fall in love, his defenses dissolving in Gheorghe’s arms. The film’s pacing and framing—relaxed but never slow, never distant—offers the space to get to know them both as they navigate this new dynamic. As his father’s condition worsens and Gheorghe’s seasonal work takes him elsewhere, Johnny is at a crossroads: will he revert to his old ways, or step up and become something more.
Of course, you’ll have to see the film to know for sure. But suffice it to say that at this crucial moment in an already wonderful film, O’Connor delivers a performance as affecting and raw as, dare I say it, Timothée Chamalet did in the astounding Call Me By Your Name (for which he was deservingly nominated for an Oscar just this week). As a study in finding one’s way, Lee and his cast deliver a film that manages to be both rough around the edges and authentically tender.