Berlin 2017: God's Own Country review


★★★★☆
Francis Lee's God's Own Country, a poignant gay romance about self-discovery in rural West Yorkshire, has been labelled a Brokeback Mountain on the Dales. It's a lazy yet somewhat understandable analogy, especially when you consider how few compassionate and tenderly observed same-sex love stories there are to draw comparisons with. But it also understates the film's brilliance, with Lee's striking debut a vivid depiction of love, lust and lambing.

Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) is left to manage the Saxby & Sons farm after a stroke leaves his father, Martin (Ian Hart), incapacitated . Both men are resentful of the situation and the interactions between them are restricted to barked orders and curt criticisms, with Johnny's grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) often required to act as an intermediary. Frustrated with life, Johnny spends what little free time he has having no-strings attached sex with local men, or at the local pub where he routinely gets blind drunk. He refuses to make connections with anyone, even old school friends returning from university isolating himself entirely.

With Spring on the horizon, Johnny is forced to socialise after his father and grandmother hire a Romanian farmhand named Gheorghe (Alec Sec─âreanu) to help with the lambing. At first, Johnny treats Gheorghe with suspicion, insisting to his grandmother that he doesn't need any help. But as time passes a relationship develops and it becomes clear that Gheorghe can help Johnny with more than just the mucking-out. The rolling hills and haunting mist of the Yorkshire Dales makes feel like they were written for the screen by Emily Bronte. The landscape is not only exalting and sublime but also gloomy and mysterious, a metaphor for Johnny's unspoken desire for freedom and the seemingly impossibility of love.

This close bond with nature is powerfully conveyed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Working with an ashen palette of smokey greys and moss-damp greens, Richards' attention to the flora and fauna of this remote corner of Yorkshire creates a moody incandescence and a deep appreciation of the land. These expressive images of the bucolic surroundings, inform much of Johnny and Gheorghe's relationship and it's during a lambing session in a remote corner of the farm that the desire between them first erupt, with their first sexual encounter a carnal tussle in the mud.

Lee deserves credit for refusing to shy away from the sexuality at the core of the film, but also for not hold back when depicting the everyday facets of Johnny's job. Hands and arms are observed entering livestock, and in one bittersweet sequence the camera observes as Gheorghe skins a recently deceased lamb to make a fur-coat for the runt of the litter. An empathetic depiction of two marginalised ways of life; God's Own Country is a deeply felt romance that harnesses the primal relationship between people and place.

The Berlin Film Festival takes place between 9-19 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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