God’s Own Country is gob-smackingly good, a raw and emotional study of a young farmer, Johnny (Josh O’Connor, sensational) who falls in love with a Romanian worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu, fantastic) in a tumultuous surprise to himself. The standout film of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, I have yet to see a better movie in 2017.
The writer-director Francis Lee takes no prisoners. He doesn’t make us ‘like’ Johnny, who finds release from life on his ailing father’s farm by getting drunk and having casual (violent) sex in the lavatory of the local pub – you won’t hear that on The Archers. His father (Ian Hart, giving a persuasive performance of cumulative power) has a debilitating disease and relies on his son. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) throws him looks of stony disapproval. In an early scene, Johnny runs in to one of his former classmates returning from university. Johnny has nothing in common with her; his fate is already sealed.
When Johnny’s father hires a casual labourer, the bigoted Johnny makes no accommodation for him. But Gheorghe’s casual kindness gets to him. This isn’t a sentimental film – love blossoms against the chill bitter wind of the Yorkshire Dales. It is one of the few movies where the sex scenes are a conversation, an expression of feeling and surrender rather than a spectacle to arouse the audience.
The film is rooted in Lee’s own experience but is not autobiographical. It does feel emotionally true. It is also a film that belies the myth that Eastern Europeans are taking jobs away from ‘willing’ UK workers. Farming is hard, it sucks you dry and leaves you with few comforts save for the slender promise of continuity – and you don’t get that on The Archers either.
Undoubtedly, not all farming in Yorkshire is as grim as that on show here. The setting though is utterly believable. The payoff is extremely moving and optimistic, a ‘punch the air’ film that feels earned, rather than a slick and manipulative crowd-pleaser. Go see.