Through an intriguing coincidence, this year the UK film slate has delivered two grassroots films dealing with the solemnity and duty-bound rural life of English farming communities.
Earlier in 2017, director Hope Dickson-Leach explored the complexities of father-daughter relationships in her West Country drama The Levelling to rapturous praise; uncovering with it a subset whose woes are commonly overshadowed by British society as a whole: a plight which is not aided by mainstream media, who habitually portray them as simple people carrying out menial tasks, with the same base equivalence in their inter-personal relationships, customarily assuming village gossip is their principal entertainment.
Francis Lee’s debut shines a light, seeking no adulation nor attention.
Emily Brontë declared in Wuthering Heights, (a novel set in the English countryside), “I could see every pebble on the path, and every blade of grass, by that splendid moon”, and with lunar clarity, Francis Lee’s debut shines his light on this secret enclave, exposing those who seek no adulation nor attention, but have their own stories to tell.
Central character, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’ Connor) is a cypher for an ex-‘Jack-the-lad’ type, though now, as a young adult loner and heavy drinker, he is increasingly isolated by childhood friends. Paradoxically, he is unwaveringly faithful to the lifestyle he has inherited, as that of a frustrated farmer’s son, punctually carrying out his duties.
Living in the farmhouse occupied by his stroke-ridden father and loyal grandmother, Johnny’s only outlets can be sought through a can of lager and covert bouts of rough sex as a means to quell the flames of his progressively unfulfilled desires. Soon enough, Johnny’s farm work begins to slip and so, too, does his father’s ability to help, requiring them to seek assistance in cheap foreign labour – in this case, Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), a Romanian migrant.
Lee’s screenplay is sparsely populated with little dialogue, a common trait of northern working-class society, where words are only uttered with intent for actions, stunting any emotional catharsis and causing a build up to Johnny’s sharp emotional outbursts. Supported by the deliberate lack of an intrusive score (save for small hints of carefully woven bird song and the fitting Patrick Wolf credit roll), Lee consistently distances his film from Johnny, shunting him further off into the societal distance as a recluse who interacts with the world through a near-Neanderthal existence.
A piercing potency through the film’s own duty to portray country life.
And yet, Lee draws us into him, sparing us the clichés of spanning shots of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, and seating us front and centre as Johnny goes about his regimented ways. We are there in the filth of the farm and we are there in the thrust of forceful fornication, an authenticity which many a filmmaker would shy away from, strengthening its piercing potency through the film’s own duty to portray country life with legitimacy. In fact, the two leads undertook several weeks of animal husbandry, cheese making and fence-making to placate Lee’s requirement for a 'lived' experience.
Gheorghe’s appearance casts up something of a curious confusion for Johnny, whose sheltered existence is exemplified through misidentifying Gheorghe’s tanned complexion as a ‘paki’. When corrected, Johnny's inability to process this information leads to an immediate mistrust of that which is unfamiliar to him, although this is soon softened by some playground name calling (he refers to Gheorghe as a ‘gyppo’, despite being told he dislikes this offensive moniker, only to be calculatingly called a ‘faggot’ in retort). As their muted relationship continues over the course of a week during lambing season, the two uncomfortably chime together through their shared silent experience atop a lonely hillside. Gheorghe is far worldlier and emotionally intelligent than Johnny, which he sees as threatening, a metaphor for the migrant workforce assembling themselves in an uncomfortable symbiosis with the farming industry, allowing it to prevail - Lee's gentle hint at the geopolitics, running as an undercurrent to the love story.
God's Own Country is a kindred spirit to Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (2013), although primarily concerned with relationships with the natural world than here, but the parallels of underdeveloped empathy and stunted aggressive male emotion cannot be denied.
Physical performances transcend that of kitchen-sink drama.
Barnard’s film, too, features accents which have the viscosity of Marmite, and perhaps, international audiences could struggle with the clarity of dialogue (I certainly did, and I’m a removed Yorkshireman), but its lack of concession in this aspect is ironically what Lee wishes to achieve here. He wants you to feel like an outsider looking in, alienated in direct opposition to Johnny’s plight – and be assured that the words in his film are of least importance.
O’Connor and Secareanu’s physical performances transcend that of kitchen-sink drama and the insistence of Lee’s pre-work is ever apparent in their screen presences. Lest we forget the excellent supporting work of familiar faces, Gemma Jones, and Ian Hart; playing Johnny’s dour father with the same exasperated, parental disapproval that every twenty-something has experienced. The commitment to presenting a faithful representation of rural life is, frankly, benchmark filmmaking and in his debut feature, Francis Lee has capably chalked his name alongside Ken Loach, Andrew Haigh and Clio Barnard as a skilful director of the unsung, unafraid of the grittiness of social-realism.
In the pantheon of modern British independent film, God’s Own Country is essential viewing.