When God's Own Country begins, it's with a quiet Yorkshire farmhouse swiftly disturbed by the sound of retching. Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) has had yet another boozy night out, and he's suffering the consequences. Unfortunately for him, the land and the livestock won't wait for his hangover. It's an appropriate opening to a film that looks like a gritty, austere, social realist drama, but contains much that cannot be constrained. The after-effects of drinking have nothing on lusty, bubbling emotions.
The first feature film from writer-director Francis Lee, God's Own Country pairs its struggling farm setting with surging desire, and asks its characters to weather hardships with both. Shot in the part of England the filmmaker grew up in, on a property much like his own father's, the movie follows Johnny's reaction when handsome Romanian Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives to assist during lambing season. Initially, Johnny's reluctant and even rude, though he can't help being impressed by the newcomer's skills with the job at hand. But cold nights spent in the countryside eventually warm up more than his appreciation for hard work. As something physical blossoms into even more, Gheorghe proves a positive influence on Johnny's self-destructive tendencies.
If that description reminds you of another movie, you're certainly not alone. The phrase "British Brokeback Mountain" has been used to describe Lee's film since it premiered at Sundance in January. More than just a convenient way to describe a rural queer romance, it's a comparison that's well and truly earned. Men working the land and making a connection; concerns about the response of Johnny's unwell father (Ian Hart) and stoic grandmother (Gemma Jones); scenic sights and swelling feelings: the commonalities are all there, although God's Own Country ultimately follows its own path. More importantly, both films present a raw and affecting love story teeming with honesty and emotion.
One thing's for certain: this isn't a restrained affair. Instead, it wears its heart proudly on Johnny and Gheorghe's muck-covered sleeves. It's a film that's unafraid to depict the harsh realities of farm life, or delve into the frustrations and troubles that come with it. Nor does it shy away from the heated passion of its erotic scenes. Blood, spit, mud, rough tumbles and tender moments all wash across the screen, drawing viewers into a realistic, resonant account of the two men's growing intimacy.
In the process, God's Own Country does what every romance endeavours, but can't always manage: it ensures that every stolen glance, hard-earned smile, quiet gesture and clenched hand is felt by more than just the people on the screen. Pitch-perfect performances by O'Connor and Secareanu help, of course, with the actors giving their characters both texture and sincerity. So too does the fond but still clear-eyed way that cinematographer Joshua James Richards lenses everything from the sparse, sprawling hills to Gheorghe and Johnny's breathless encounters.