God's Own Country

 

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A gay love story made with flair but let down by its screenplay.

    
God's Own Country

 

Although not his first film, this is the debut feature from writer/director Francis Lee. On the evidence of God's Own Country, his directorial skills are substantial, but his ability as a writer is more open to question. Unless you come from somewhere such as Yorkshire, the title might lead you to expect a work set in, say, America, but Yorkshire it is. Since the film deals with a family running a farm, one readily compares it with the recent drama, The Levelling. That film was highly praised by many (not least for its visuals) but, given the splendidly judged use of the striking location here (one well known to Lee), I feel that this is even better in that respect. But, when it comes to the screenplay, I find it lacking.

 

God's Own Country is the story of Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) who, despite his feeling for the animals, regards himself as trapped in this rural community - and all the more so because the degenerating health of his crippled father (Ian Hart), a dominating figure, means that the whole of Johnny's life revolves around the farm work. These restrictions affect him all the more strongly because he is gay. He drinks too much and for his sexual needs he turns only to whatever one-night stands he can find. But then Gheorghe, a Romanian (Alec Secareanu), applies for a temporary post as a helper at the farm and before long a relationship grows up between Johnny and the newcomer which could come to have real significance.

 

The quality of the filmmaking is immediately apparent, and this is so even though one edit early on is too abrupt: the aim is to confirm Johnny's sexuality by introducing a sex scene, but it is so suddenly done that one could take what one sees to be imagined by Johnny when actually it is meant to be the real thing. However, while the farming detail is precise, one senses that, save for gay audiences who are hooked by knowing in advance that this is a movie for them, rather more dramatic grip is required to claim the interest of the audience. Although the gay love story becomes central, God's Own Country offers Johnny's difficult relationship with his father as a sub-plot, but being underwritten this carries less weight than it should.

 

The film does eschew sentimentality by making Johnny, however understandably, a rather unattractive character, but once again there is a failure in the writing. Secareanu as Alec makes his character appealing, but Lee's screenplay is unable to make Johnny an engaging figure about whom we care in spite of his failings. If the start of their relationship seems rather too sudden, there is even more of a misjudgment later since, contrary to what the audience is clearly meant to feel, the resolution can leave us thinking that Gheorghe deserves a better partner than Johnny. However, the direction makes one interested in what Lee will do next and there is a supporting performance from Gemma Jones which once again reminds us what a fine actress she is. Nevertheless, although some have compared this film favourably with Brokeback Mountain, my own experience was that the writing prevents the film from functioning as intended.  But you may well wish to check it out for yourself since I am aware that many rate this film very highly.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart, Patsy Ferran, Melanie Wilburn, Liam Thomas, Sarah White.

 

Dir Francis Lee, Pro Manon Ardisson and Jack Tarling, Screenplay Francis Lee, Ph Joshua James Richards, Pro Des St├ęphane Collonge, Ed Chris Wyatt, Music Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltze, Costumes Sian Jenkins.

 

Inflammable Films/Magic Bear Productions/Shudder Films-Picturehouse Entertainment.
104 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 1 September 2017. Cert. 15.