God’s Own Country (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): An unadorned gay romance in countryside

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As watching “God’s Own Country”, I thought about how much we have been accustomed to queer movies since “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) came out. After the considerable critical and financial success of that haunting gay romance drama, there came many other notable queer movies such as “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) and “Call Me by Your Name” (2017), and now they are as common as movies about heterosexual relationship these days.

While it is certainly your typical gay romance drama, “God’s Own Country” distinguishes itself with its raw realism and sensitive storytelling, and it instantly immerses us into the cold, lonely world of its young gay hero right from its very first shot. As closely observing his gloomy daily life, we come to understand how suffocating and frustrating it has been for him to live there, and that is the main reason why it is poignant to watch the development of his unexpected romance with a stranger coming into his life.

During the first act of the movie, we get to know a bit about Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) and his depressingly mundane life with his father and grandmother in some remote rural town of Yorkshire. When we see him for the first time, he is suffering the consequence of another wild drinking night, but he manages to pull up himself barely enough to start another day for working in his family farm. It is apparent that he does not like his work much, but he has no choice mainly because of the poor health of his father Martin (Ian Hart), and he does not particularly get along well with his father, who usually chides his son for working not enough to maintain their farm and getting drunk every night. Between them, Johnny’s grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones) quietly takes care of everything inside the house, and we sense from her rather detached attitude that she has been a sort of buffer between her son and grandson.

As a bitter, self-loathing guy who does not like anything much in his miserable life, Johnny is not so interested in having any serious relationship, but he does not hesitate when he comes across a chance to satisfy his sexual urge at one point. Once he and some young man look at each other from the distance with instant mutual recognition, they soon come to have a quick sex together, but then he coldly refuses his accidental sex partner’s suggestion of spending more time together.

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Meanwhile, because extra help is needed for taking care of the sheep in the farm, Martin hires a young Romanian guy named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Johnny does not care much about Gheorghe, and he even disregards Gheorghe blatantly, but we gradually come to sense the growing sexual tension between them – especially when they happen to spend several days together alone somewhere in the farm. We get an erotically charged moment reminiscent of a similar one in “Brokeback Mountain”, and then there eventually comes a sudden rough moment of impulse between them.

Steadily maintaining the chilly, desolate ambience around them, the movie gives us several tender and sensitive moments as they approach closer to each other. As feeling his hardened heart slowly softened through his relationship with Gheorghe, Johnny becomes less bitter and sullen than before, and he even considers having Gheorghe stay longer in the farm.

Of course, not so surprisingly, there comes a serious matter Johnny must deal with in one way or another, and that surely leads to a conflict between him and Gheorghe, but the movie keeps sticking to its low-key tone while vividly conveying the emotional tumults in their relationship. In addition, it also gives some space to Martin and Deidre, and I admire how it deftly handles a wordless scene where one of them accidentally comes to realize what is going on between Johnny and Gheorghe.

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This is the first feature film by writer/director Francis Lee, and it is evident from the result that he is a competent director who knows how to tell a story via nuances and details to observe. Thanks to his cinematographer Joshua James Richards, there are a number of impressive moments of rough natural beauty in the film, and I particularly like when the camera looks around a wide landscape along with Gheorghe and Johnny for a while. People say that things look different to you when you fall in love, and that plain but beautiful moment exemplifies that well.

As the heart and soul of the movie, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu complement each other well with nice onscreen chemistry. While O’Connor ably delivers complex emotions swirling inside his character, Secareanu is effective in his gentle and thoughtful appearance, and it is constantly engaging to see how their characters push and pull each other on the emotional level. In case of Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, they are also convincing in their respective solid roles, and Hart has a touching scene where his character and Johnny come to have an awkward but honest personal conversation.

Considering the increasing prominence of queer cinema during recent years, “God’s Own Country”, which won the World Cinema Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, does not exactly break any new ground, and I do not know whether it will be remembered as much as “Brokeback Mountain” or “Call Me by Your Name”, but I enjoyed its mood, storytelling, and performance nonetheless. It is familiar indeed, but it is distinctive enough to leave considerable impression on me, and that is not a small achievement at all.

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