For something that can be so vibrantly tenacious, the human spirit can also be astonishingly fragile.
One step, or many, away from the happy middle, from the sweet spot in life’s fortunes, and what was potentially a blessed existence, can quickly feel like some sort of existential hell.
You know within a few frames of writer/director Francis Lee’s exquisitely-insightful debut feature, God’s Own Country, that Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) understands all too well what this is like.
Dour, angry when confronted, a young man who clearly feels imprisoned within decisions not of his choosing, Johnny goes about the neverending work on his stroke-affected father Martin’s (Ian Hart) Yorkshire farm with all the evident enthusiasm of a man on death’s row.
Forced by circumstance to “get on what it”, a stoic mantra that is his recourse on more than one occasion, he moves from lambing to taking cows to market to fence repair with a robotic disaffection that speaks of a life curtailed, a future circumscribed so thoroughly and completely that dreaming of anything else is sheer foolishness.
You can’t be that deep in resentment and unhappiness without messy emotional overflow, and Johnny, who is rude to his give-as-good-as-gets grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones) and dismissive of his taciturn, equally unhappy father, loses himself to blinding drunkenness every night and to his random anonymous sex with any men who catch his eye.
Grieving the departure of his mother who dreamed of better things that being on a bleak but intoxicatingly beautiful Moors farm and his enforced career choice, but like the rest of his shut down family, unable to even remotely articulate it, Johnny is, in his words “fucked up”, and manifestly disinclined to do anything to improve a situation that is as enervating to his soul as it is toxic to those around him.
Enter migrant farmworker, Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian man fleeing his own less-than-idyllic rural life story, who arrives on the farm one cold, unfriendly night – it’s an each ways bet whether Johnny or the frigid weather are less welcoming – to help out with a peak week of farming activity, which includes going into the high country to assist with lambing, repairs of heavy stone boundary fences and sundry other tasks that feel like a noose around Johnny’s neck.
Right from the get-go, Johnny tries to bully Gheorghe like his father has bullied him but calm, thoughtful and eminently capable, the newly-arrived worker is having none of that, pushes back after much observation and silent suffering to make it clear he is no pushover and will not be the punching boy for Johnny’s unhappiness with life.
It sets in motion a stop-start, rough and yet tender love affair between the two men with Johnny, slowly and with guarded reluctance – his walls have been erected too high and too strongly to fall to just anyone or any promising wind of change – yielding with what feel like hard-won inches as Gheorghe, slowly but assuredly and with mostly infinite patience (again, he’s no vacuous saint and will defend himself when necessary), brings Johnny back into the fold of emotionally-functional humanity.
This most unexpected of love affairs – while you can tell Johnny likes what he sees physically looks whenever he thinks Gheorghe isn’t looking; oh, he’s looking all right – comes to step-by-agonising-step fruition with a nuanced realness that reflects the struggles of someone who has lived a life somewhere along these lines.
In fact, God’s Own Country is partly based on Lee’s own life where he had to struggle with whether to remain on his dad’s farm, where, incidentally, much of the movie was filmed, or go to drama school.
That central dilemma gives this wholly-affecting story, told with great nuance and understanding, a vibrant ring of authenticity, imbuing its quietly powerful narrative with a truth so palpable that anyone who has ever wondered if where they are is it, if there is any point pursuing anything else or finding someone to pursue it with, will readily identify with.
With every sullen look, and later rare smiles of nascent hopefulness, Johnny conveys what it is like to wake up from a walled-off existence to realise that the outside world exists still and there are decisions to be made.
Even when the tide turns and turn it does with Johnny forced to grow up through a series of events and decide whether he will own life on the farm on his terms and his rich, tender and sweet relationship with Gheorghe, God’s Own Country moves carefully and assuredly and with great emotional nous, ever mindful of the fact that life is rarely like a fairytale where the unpalatable becomes the alluringly attractive overnight, if at all.
Enriched with a prevailing understanding of life’s impossible choices and how these do not necessarily become any easier even when the possibility of happiness rears its unexpected but eventually welcome head – Johnny seems determined to resist happiness at every turn, his responses to Gheorghe’s tenderness and love often brutish and awkward – God’s Own Country is a beautiful paean to life’s possibilities and the sweetness and angst that reside, often in equal measure, within them.
Even as Johnny realises that perhaps it is possible to stay on the farm, find love with Gheorghe and smile again, he is aware of the many challenges that pursuing such an enticing scenario entails.
It is testament to Lee’s deft hand that the film, which is a love letter to the harshly beautiful Yorkshire landscape which Johnny only appreciates one dawn when Gheorghe forces him to stop and look at it with something other than a get-on-with-it farmer’s eye, and full of quiet moments of contemplative beauty such as an insect walking meditatively along a log, that it gives itself plenty of room and time to think through these various challenges, these conflicting demands and hopes and dreams and arrive at a point where the life Johnny wants and the life he has can find some accommodation.
It’s this willingness to let events play out in what feels like real time and with the sort of kinks and foibles that litter life like so much complicating existential flotsam-and-jetsam that give God’s Own Country such rich insightfulness and truth.
There are one or two narratively convenient moments such as Johnny and Gheorghe’s first rough and dirty sexual encounter that are not carried off with the elegant precision that much of the film carries; but for the greater part, this is a gorgeously well–wrought film that knows what it wants to say about the human condition and goes about saying with an emotional resonance and beauty that will leave you full of admiration for Lee’s nuanced, thoughtful style and emboldened once again to believe that even at its worst, life can surprise and delight you, and yes, maybe even leave you happier than you thought was humanly possible.