When the EU enshrined in its treaties the aim of an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, it may not have been thinking of the kind that occurs between a young Yorkshire farmer and a Romanian labourer in God’s Own Country. In the crepuscular light of Brexit, however, the film resembles a symbolic appeal for tenderness at a time of instability, even if it is really something altogether more conventional: a love story against the odds.
John (Josh O’Connor) is a gangly, gawky slab of a lad with a face that’s all nose and ears, and a disposition that makes Heathcliff seem sunny. He lives and works on the farm owned by his father (Ian Hart), who has suffered a stroke, and his grandmother (Gemma Jones), who casts a concerned eye over the boy’s lifestyle, which amounts to little more than drink, puke, repeat. John isn’t exactly struggling with his sexuality. He’s perfectly brazen about having his way with a pretty male auctioneer he meets while flogging a prize cow; the dating scene is routinely described as a meat market, but here it’s an actual meat market.
What he won’t have any truck with is vulnerability. When he boots a dead calf that he wasn’t able to deliver safely, you suspect he’s really kicking himself. Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), who has been hired by John’s father to help out during the lambing season. He has smouldering matinee-idol looks and a repertoire of impressive tricks for every farming emergency; what he does to endear a sheep to its struggling offspring has to be seen (preferably through splayed fingers) to be believed. Gheorghe also knows a lost lamb when he sees one. Peering from his caravan window late at night, he watches as John, sloshed again, is disgorged from a taxi by the driver and left to lie in the dirt like an animal.
It is a mark of the first-time writer-director Francis Lee’s ease with his material and his actors that this line of symbolism plays out organically on screen. He keeps the camera tight on faces and hands, and the
nitty-gritty of farming, holding in reserve any sweeping landscape shots or mood music, preferring instead the sound of the howling wind. That’s until Gheorghe leads John to the top of a hill to show him his surroundings. The boy is so mired in loneliness that it takes this outsider to open his eyes to beauty.
This isn’t a sexual awakening but an emotional one: only after falling for Gheorghe does John crackle into life, communicating in words rather than grunts. Lee takes his time letting the men’s relationship warm up, so that the progress from writhing in the mud together to sharing a romantic meal (daffodils on the table, right next to the cans of lager) feels unforced. When they sit together in the barn after sex, naked from the waist down, John mentions his mother for the first and only time in the film. The pants-off confession pioneered by Julianne Moore in Short Cuts turns out to be no less effective with the gender reversed.
One hazard for a film that hinges on subtle gestures and loaded glances is that the smallest melodramatic device or acceleration in plot can seem disproportionately cataclysmic; it’s as though a pebble thrown into a pond had caused a tsunami. The amount of action that comes John’s way, even in his isolated corner of the world, is just about plausible (three sexual partners without so much as an app to find them), whereas the repetition of plot devices – bad things happening back on the farm whenever he’s away enjoying himself, or the concentration of three different calamities into a single night in the village pub – feels contrived in a film which generally proceeds by stealth.
God’s Own Country has been likened to a Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain but it resists strongly the earlier picture’s air of martyrdom and dispenses so swiftly with convention that even its coming-out scenes fall into the category of blink-and-you-miss-them. Only when the tremulous, dramatising tones of Patrick Wolf are heard over the final moments does it feel as if the film is taking its place in some kind of hallowed gay tradition. Until then, it whistles its own tune. Or, rather, the wind does.
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire