Words by Catherine Pearson
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) lives in rural Yorkshire where he works on the family farm by day and goes on all-night solo benders at night. With his father Martin’s (Ian Hart) health deteriorating, the full weight of the farming responsibilities have fallen on his young shoulders and so, too, have the expectations of his dad and grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones) whose livelihoods depends on the land. A brief run-in with a friend in the local village hits home Johnny’s reality. While he is depended upon at the homestead, getting his hands dirty and working all the hours God sends, his former classmates are swanning off to university and leaving their dead-end home behind.
When he’s not drinking himself into oblivion, Johnny passes the time having brisk, emotionless sex in cattle transporters with guys he picks up at the cattle auction. Just like a quick pint down the local, these rendezvous take the edge off before he’s back up in the dales.
With lambing season on the horizon, the family advertise for a farm hand to help the ailing business. Only one person responds to the ad and so Johnny goes to collect him from the station, in too much of a strop to notice that Romanian Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) is a tall, dark and handsome dream. Johnny has little time for Gheorghe as they begin work the following day, breaking the angry silence now and then to call him a gypsy, but when the pair are (conveniently) sent up to a dilapidated farm house to rebuild a wall (so that’s what you kids are calling it now?) Johnny begins to warm to his new work partner.
God’s Own Country is a film about silence. It features a lot of it, with Johnny and Gheorghe’s passions building as they work wordlessly alongside each other, but the story is also driven by what is not said. The heterosexual Northern ‘man of the land’ stereotype is built on a solid foundation of grunts and emotional repression and so it is apt that the film’s major events play out in distinct silence. You’d have thought a Yorkshire lad’s family would have a thing or two to say about him being gay. In a gorgeous directorial choice from Francis Lee, they don’t. Johnny’s sexuality is never raised but quietly come to terms with by the family.
When Johnny isn’t doing what he ought to be doing on the farm there’s a fair amount of talking, however. Johnny’s dad tells him, “don’t be wet” when he suggests calling a vet instead of shooting a lamb on its last legs and calls his son a “mardy arse” when he backchats with work to be done.
The film has a lot of grit to it, too, and it’s not least because of its cold and misty setting where being covered in shit is just a regular part of the day. There are lots of bodily fluids going on in this film, from Johnny chucking up after boozing all night to his frequent spitting that also features in the clinical and unsexy romp at the cattle market. This, together with lots of pissing and the various goos of birthing farm animals, combines to put you in no doubt that, whilst the love story is quietly beautiful, the hard graft really isn’t.
Then in comes the hottie in the Helly Hansen. I bet you didn’t think that a bloke in a windbreaker would get you hot under the collar, but Alec Secareanu brings such raw sexuality to his role that I wouldn’t blame you for hanging around the thermals section to find yourself your own fit farmer. The chemistry between Johnny and Gheorghe is perfect; both are strong and silent but while Johnny is down and disillusioned, Gheorghe gently introduces his new co-worker to the natural splendour of the land that he blames for his miserable existence. “It’s beautiful here but lonely, you know?” says Gheorghe as he looks out over the fields. He’s the poetic man that can save Johnny, but not before some achingingly gorgeous scenes as the pair slowly explore their feelings for one another.
Time is key in God’s Own Country. Nothing is rushed and the pair’s relationship develops, for want of a less farm-y term, very organically. When things heat up it’s not at the expense of a moving piece of storytelling, but it’s quite something. Put it this way: if you opt to see this on a date night things will go very well. In one fiery scene, Johnny calls Gheorghe ‘gyppo’ for the last time as the Romanian leaps on him, stares him down and demands the respect that he deserves. It’s the sexiest, most pulse-racing confrontation and a tantalising taster of what’s to come.
With a combination of passion and Pot Noodles to sustain them, Johnny and Gheorghe get some work done (Gheorghe making a newborn lamb a woolly jacket is the cutest thing ever) while letting the evenings give way to palpable sexual tension and, later, bare bum romps in the mud. Despite some hot and heavy action, the film still manages to elicit tingles from the tiniest touch between the pair. There is no space for gratuity or seediness in this hopeful and emotional story of hard labour, family responsibility and unexpected love. Having the right person beside you really can make shovelling manure heaven on earth.
God’s Own Country is in cinemas now.