The two words you’ll read most in reviews and hear most in discussions of Francis Lee’s feature-length directorial debut God’s Own Country are “Brokeback Mountain.” Try to ignore them. Because, with no disrespect to Ang Lee’s groundbreaking gay love story, God’s Own Country travels a significantly different and more wildly erotic path in its depiction of love between farm workers.
The young Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) spends his days engaged in the backbreaking work of tending to his family farm. He’s as isolated as the Yorkshire landscape, angry and trapped, with the occasional foray to the local pub and, if lucky, a rough bathroom stall tryst with another rural boy. He drinks and smokes too much, fucks with the same emotional involvement as the animals he tends and wanders through his days hungover and full of animosity.
Against Johnny’s wishes, his ailing father (a tender Ian Hart) hires a migrant farm laborer to help with the seasonal lambing: Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), only a few years older than Johnny yet more world-wise and tempered. There is no “meet cute” between the men — this is kitchen sink realism — but they do, while caring alone for the sheep on the outer reaches of the farm, meet rough.
It’s an instinctual and passionate scene, wherein the sensual, swarthy Gheorghe, after wrestling the feral Johnny to the ground, capitulates to the young man’s passion and allows him to get him off orally. And that’s when things really heat up between them.
Sex scenes in most movies are tepidly mechanical. They strive for a steamy verisimilitude and often end up vapid and flaccid. The sex in God’s Own Country isn’t pornographic, though the level of intimacy it achieves makes you feel like you should look away. (You won’t. It’s hot.)
Writer-director Lee guides his actors with a deft hand, but the chemistry between his leads is palpable, never more than when Gheorghe, later that same evening, guides Johnny, wordlessly, to a more emotional yet equally passionate encounter. Awakened for the first time to the stirrings of love, Johnny — with Gheorghe’s patient guidance — must learn to negotiate a new terrain that’s as beautiful and bleak as the community that surrounds him.
“I wanted to tell a heartfelt but stark love story,” Lee has said, and he’s achieved it here. Nothing comes easy to the men at its center — Johnny is still emotionally stunted and lashing out as his father grows more ill — yet there is no shame in their coupling, either.
Lee immersed his cast in farm work so that O’Connor and Secareanu (working with real, unharmed animals) seem authentic, and you watch the characters pivot and change over the film’s brief 104-minute length. They fuck and fight and love and misunderstand each other, approach and retreat and try to find their way not to some preordained tragic end or heartbreak, but towards a place in the world where they do more than survive — they belong.