Spring. Yorkshire. Young farmer Johnny Saxby numbs his daily frustrations with binge drinking and casual sex, until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker for lambing season ignites an intense relationship that sets Johnny on a new path.
The opening film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, ‘God’s Own Country’, is a moving drama about a sheep farmer who falls in love with a migrant worker who comes to work on his farm. Directed by Francis Lee and led by a terrific breakout performance from Josh O’Connor, the film balances the romantic aspects superbly with the more interesting backdrop and subtext about a young man struggling to cope with the events in his life. The premise of the film is likely to see it compared to ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and the similarities are there, but ‘God’s Own Country’ is very much a British film and it’s one of the finest we’ve produced this year.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is a young man struggling to cope with the hardship of working on the family farm whilst struggling with his personal demons, namely that he’s a closeted gay man in an environment where he doesn’t feel comfortable being honest with himself. His difficult life is compounded by his father having a stroke and his grandmother being too old to work, making an already difficult line of work near impossible. He turns to drink and only opens up when his family hire help from Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian man who has came to the UK to find work. Many of the best moments of the film are in the quiet, unsaid moments, such as a particularly poignant scene towards the end between Johnny and his grandmother (the terrific Gemma Jones), where the recognition of who Johnny is becomes clear to both, but everything is said in knowing looks and unspoken emotion as opposed to words. It also shines when we see the views of the English countryside, contrasting beautifully with the harshness involved in working in this environment.
Johnny’s personal journey is the story of the film and he’s played superbly by Josh O’Connor, but those around him are equally terrific. Ian Hart plays his father and delivers one of the finest depictions of a stroke victim in a heartbreaking display, whilst Alec Secareanu is just as good a find as O’Connor. It’s Gemma Jones who impressed me the most though, doing most of her acting internally and really embodying a women who cares for her family deeply whilst recognising the challenges of this lifestyle and the weight it places on Johnny’s shoulders.
‘God’s Own Country’ is an excellent piece of British cinema and the second film of this year to focus on the hardships of farming and the impact on young people in that environment (after ‘The Levelling’). It’s a lot more than just a British ‘Brokeback’.
Directed By: Francis Lee
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones