Friday, December 28, 2018
Francis Lee | God's Own Country
learning how to love
by Douglas Messerli
Francis Lee (writer and director) God’s Own Country / 2017
Why is it, I have to explore, why I felt Francis Lee’s 2017 film about a young, gay Yorkshire sheep farmer (Josh O’Connor) and a Romanian migrant temporary worker (Alec Secăreanu) to be totally believable and touching, whereas I found Ang Lee’s 2005 gay romance, Brokeback Mountain, about a gay relationship between two sheep-herders utterly unconvincing?
It wasn’t that I was surprised by the sudden sexual passion between the two rugged Wyoming-based shepherds who get the hots for one another; as I wrote in my review of that year:
The first part of the film, a long laconic testimony to the lonely life of the sheep-herding cowboys and an evocation of the beauty of the landscape in which they work, was perfectly reasonable. And I think it is not at all illogical or even out of the ordinary that these two lonely men, both of whom had come from dysfunctional families, would develop a kind of unspoken bond, even be attracted to one another, and, upon that lonely mountain, find themselves having sex. I don’t care how loud the Christian coalitions yell, men—even straight men which both of these cowboys proclaim themselves to be—sometimes have sex in situations where they exist for long periods of time without women. So, their rather violent sexual outing—although we later suspect that it is not the first time for the Jake Gyllenhall character, Jack Twist—is quite believable.
The central character of Francis Lee’s movie, Johnny, in this more nuanced work, begins also loving
with rough and quick sex, the young farmer grabbing up anyone he might encounter in his rural isolation for a quick fuck in the back of his van in which he carries his cows to market. His sexuality is clearly a thing of frustration and anger.
The young lad with whom we first encounter him having sex tries to encourage a deeper connection through an invite for a drink at a local pub, which Johnny brusquely refuses. He is bitter, forced as he is to run his father, Martin Saxby’s, farm since the elder has suffered a stroke and can now barely walk.
His grandmother, Deidre (Gemma Jones), with her gorgon-like personality doesn’t help. Johnny is clearly locked up in a world not to his liking and which he has no chance to escape. His only outs are his drunken evenings at a nearby pub, after which he is apparently delivered up by a local taxi, whose drive is forced to literally deposit him, like a piece of rubbish, in the driveway of the farm, a scene which the temporary Romanian worker, Gheorghe, painfully observes from the small trailer near the house in which they have ensconced him.
Johnny’s first encounter with Gheorghe, given the Yorkshireman’s unhappiness with his life, is not a pleasant one, although we immediately sense that the handsome Gheorghe, given his deferential attitude to life and his gentle responses to the brutal comments of his new employer and the conditions in which he must now live (including an dialect so peculiar that subtitles are needed), might be perfect to calm the angry young man. And that is, precisely, what makes this film so wonderful.
Gheorghe, a bit like a saint of Pasolini’s Theorama, appears out of the blue in order to gradually tame the beast in Johnny, showing him, without saying a word, how beautiful his Yorkshire landscape truly is, that even a newborn baby sheep “runt,” might be nursed back to health—in one of the most
painful but enlightening moments of this film, he takes up a knife to skin a stillborn sheep, placing the pelt around the runt, which when the dead sheep’s mother smells, encourages her to nurse it—and helps Johnny to learn that another male body is not just an ass to be intruded, but a being to caress and even kiss. Sheep are not simply something to be sheared, but produce, if you are knowledgeable, a beautiful cheese that is not only delicious but possibly financially beneficial.
For the bitter Johnny, these lessons, particularly when he realizes that he cannot possibly bring his new lover into his house, are learned slowly. And when drunkenly and casually he chooses to fuck another young gay man in the local pub in the presence of his new “teacher,” Gheorghe determines, as the agreement has always been, to move on. The angel has flown off to Scotland.
When Johnny’s father has another stroke, however, the son realizes that he must now take charge, and despite the dismissive stares of the gorgon grandmother, determines to find his Romanian lover and bring him home and, presumably, into his own bed.
These events, large and small, are what make the love between these two unlikely gay lovers so very different from the other Lee’s simple-minded, lust-induced cowboys. We believe in this relationship because we can comprehend it; we understand what they do and don’t have in common and perceive how together they have worked to create something different, a world unthinkable in the Yorkshire wilds. In order to have a true relationship, you can’t just drop in from time to time on a married man to restore that “oh such special feeling”; you need to wake up, recognize yourself and your love and act on that.
Francis Lee, unlike Ang Lee, using his own experience as the basis of his filmmaking truly comprehended what love (any love, not just gay) is all about. And in a world in which gays are not yet accepted, you need to simply take a stand, bring the boy into the house and let him work with you to make a better life together. Even the gorgons will surely back off; besides Gheorghe is a much better cook! And that goat cheese he has left behind looks so very delicious.
Los Angeles, December 28, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).