British director Francis Lee makes an auspicious debut with God’s Own Country, a gay love story about a Yorkshire sheep farmer whose tough existence is transformed when he falls for a Romanian migrant worker. Opening this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, it’s a movie that has the unmistakable ring of truth to it – both in its unsentimental depiction of rural life and its matter-of-fact approach to sexuality.
God’s Own Country *****
Director: Francis Lee
The latter is especially welcome, enabling the film to dispense with cliché-ridden coming-out tropes in favour of a more interesting exploration of what it means to be a gay man in an isolated community. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is certainly that. The burden of running his family’s farm for his stroke-afflicted father (Ian Hart) and no-nonsense grandmother (Gemma Jones) has left him feeling physically and emotionally cut-off, so much so that even a tentative night out in Bradford feels as unrealistic as a trip to the moon.
He numbs his frustration with binge drinking and casual sex, approaching his anonymous encounters with men with the same clinical detachment he uses to examine livestock. That starts to change, however, with the arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). At first, Johnny tries to cow him with racial slurs, but Gheorghe’s more thoughtful approach to their hardscrabble reality manifests itself in the tenderness with which he responds to Johnny’s typically aggressive come-ons.
Both actors are superb here and Lee subtly mirrors the characters’ deepening relationship with visuals that transcend the bleak setting and give God’s Own Country an overwhelmingly hopeful feel. And yet that title also has melancholic implications. The film’s positive depiction of people from different cultures forging a better life together now feels more like a lament for everything Britain has thrown away in its nostalgic pursuit of a past that never was. Whether intentionally or not, Lee has made the first great film of the Brexit era.