The 2017 British independent film God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, director) is about the Yorkshire countryside, two homosexual men, plenty of sheep and a sense of nostalgia. Filled with the ambition of timelessness, the story, or a dreamy fairytale, does not happen in a specified time. Characters speak with a strong regional accent, and I struggle to catch every word. But that turns out to be a minor concern: the film does not demand its audience to catch every word; instead, it invites them for a visually intimate experience with two blessed young men falling in love, alongside an earnest, affecting depiction of humanity.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), an unhappy, overworked young man, unwillingly managed his family farm after his father (Ian Hart) sufferred from a stroke. As his mother left the town when he was a child, and his grandmother was too old to labour in the farm, the day-to-day maintenance was totally Johnny’s responsibility. He was too young to carry the burden of an entire family when most of his peers were entitled to pursue the wildest dreams in agreement with their age. One year, Johnny had to accommodate and camp with a Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), during the lambing season.
Their explosive love was violent at first. Johnny called Gheorghe a gypsy, which greatly irritated Gheorghe. One morning, they decided to confront each other with a fight, a clear reference to the violent nature of masculinity, but the fight quickly turned into a rough outdoor sex. The scene is filled with heavy breaths and dirty thighs, with two naked men lying on the muddy field and impatiently struggling to physically dominate each other. It is not a comfortable love-making scene to watch; it is also hard to differentiate aggression and sexual pleasure. Perhaps the scene is about both, as sex is inherently violent and intrusive, and the nature of human sexual pleasure originates from such an unsettling desire. Although both sheep and men follow their natural drive and engage in sexual activities, there is something fundamentally different between the two species. While sheep mate primarily to have offsprings (there are an overwhelmingly number of scenes about animal reproduction in the film), Johnny and Gheorghe engaged in sexual intercourse for the sake of it, or for the sake of power and dominance without reproductive purposes. They expressed their anger and affection through sex, and their love slowly began to bloom with such violent desire, like all homo sapiens.
During and after the second sexual encounter between the two men, the film depicts humanity and humanly love with more hope and warmth. One night, they shared ingredients for instant noodles. They did not communicate gratitude with words; they signalled each other with gestures and gazes. They returned indoors and gradually become intimate. The scene is much more patient and sensual this time. They slowly undressed themselves in a warmly lit room before Gheorghe noticed the wound on Johnny’s hand. He licked Johnny’s wound with care and affection, hoping that his saliva might kill the germs. He stared at Johnny with sincere eyes; this time, he did not consciously think about dominating this man. They passionately kissed and hugged. The scene gradually fades and switches to the next morning when they woke up, and the sunshine filled the small room. Neither of them was wearing any pants, and their penises were relaxing between their thighs. Even when warriors fought in the ancient time, they covered their penises: at least they could still have children even when they lost, for example, an arm in a fight. Exposing penises to other men is perhaps a confession of male vulnerability.
Indeed, Johnny was sharing memories of his mother, how she left when he could barely remember things. He kept the recollection brief and personal emotions guarded, of course, but Gheorghe listened in silence while slowly sliding his index finger on Johnny’s ankle, signalling his subtle attempt to comfort Johnny. Their intimacy originated from violence and the desire to physically dominate, but their feelings towards each other gradually took over their primitive desires. They shared noodles ingredients at night, and when they woke up the second morning, they shared their personal vulnerabilities and childhood trauma. After all, love evolves and breaks personal boundaries. When they returned home, Johnny even asked Gheorghe to stay indoors with him at night. After Gheorghe refused to stay and left the house, Johnny found him outside and showed him an angry face. This time, they confronted each other with a gentle kiss rather than a violent fight.
Love continues to grow stronger, and it elevates and transcends. After Johnny’s father recovered from his second stroke, the two young men celebrated the occasion with the third and also the last explicit depiction of physical intimacy. They sat together in the bath tab and exchanged cigarettes. The focus is less on the intimacy but on the content of their communication. They woke up the next day with Johnny mischievously learning Romanian vocabularies. Blankets covered their penises this time. The film reminds its audience of cultural clashes and reconciliations. Johnny even asked Gheorghe to stay in Yorkshire and manage the farm together. Gheorghe expressed his concern whether their relationship could be accepted in a conservative English countryside and his pessimism about the future.
Johnny did not manage to deal with stress well, as he returned to alcohol and casual sex like what he used to do under stress before meeting Gheorghe. Gheorghe discovered his casual encounter with another man and left the town the next day, in much anger and disappointment. Despite Gheorghe’s anger, he did not hit Johnny but withheld his fist, abandoning the option of violence. After all, Johnny used to be the reason for him to stay, given the apparent racial discrimination in the bar. Few months after Gheorghe left, Johnny realised his importance to him. He even wore his reddish brown sweater, an almost plagiarised idea from Brokeback Mountain. Johnny asked his father to manage the farm in his own way, and his love with Gheorghe was implicitly accepted by his grandmother. Gheorghe eventually agreed to come back after Jonny travelled to persuade him and admit his own stupidity. ‘You are a freak’, Gheorghe told Johnny, half mockingly, before Johnny bursted into joyful tears. The story has a tranquil but affecting ending: two men lives with sheep in God’s own country.
The growth of Johnny is the focus of the last part. ‘Love has the power to change a person’ has probably become a cliched thematic reference, but every time a story makes use of the idea with much care and sincerity, the final effect can still be exceptionally relatable. Johnny realised that he had to change his lifestyle and grow. He chose to face his mistakes and seek redemption. That emotional process is subtly and authentically depicted: Johnny gently showered his dad, and he started to manage finances of the farm. Johnny grew to be more accountable, after realising how people around him had loved him deeply, and Johnny himself too, had loved them deeply. The audience do not know how their relationship would continue, whether it lasted for their lives or ended prematurely. But one can be sure that Johnny and Gheorghe learned to accept and grow together as a couple. Any addition will spoil the authenticity of their explosive love, and the story ends in what I think the perfect place. The story between Johnny and Gheorghe ends here, but its depiction of humanly love is warm and hopeful, transcending personal identity and inspiring devotion to such unique human trait.
The boldest statement in this independent production is implied by its title, the very first line every film goer sees. Not only God tolerate homosexuals, He would even bless them with love and His own country. The message is theological, and even political. Many traditionalists would argue against the idea of God’s own country with literally two gays. The film does not seem to eagerly address this challenge, but it rebuts almost effortlessly. The film’s depiction of humanity is not necessarily critical or existential, but its warmth and optimism suggest a sense of purity about homosexual love, or humanly love in general. Homo sapiens are not bounded or defined by their primitive reproductive needs; people love for the sake of it, and they accept the consequences of it and allow it to be an inseparable part of life.
Such idealism is well-managed by the film, and I am not alarmed by any apparent departure from the reality. Rather, I am happy to put aside my critical lens and join the Yorkshire countryside for an sincere, tranquil exploration, if not revitalisation of humanity, or ‘humanness’, a topic often ignored by contemporary cinematic blockbusters. There is something really old about the film’s aesthetic decisions, but there is also something timeless. I feel blessed that I truly enjoy a film not in the mainstream Hollywood commercial production, a work of art that does not want to impress me in any sense, but only aims to present love and life as what they originally are and perhaps should always be.