The best love stories capture that strange electric feeling you get when you realize you’re being looked back at with the same level of desire and affection by someone you’re crazy about—and how scary and exhilarating it is to be this vulnerable and open with another human being. We see a lot of films focus on the exhilarating part, and often there’ll be external forces threatening to keep two people apart, but few are willing to really dig into the more complicated emotions that often lead us to self-sabotage and threaten to tear us asunder from within if we let them—if we don’t capitulate to the breathtaking new landscape that young romance opens up before us as it does in Francis Lee’s heady love story that flips the script (or the ending, at least) on many a queer film that came before it.
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY centers on Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a dour young man who’s been more or less forced to stay home in wind-beaten Yorkshire and work his family farm in the wake of his gruff, hyper-critical father’s stroke. Left behind by his friends who all went off to university, Johnny drowns his growing feelings of isolation and hopelessness with beer and casual, anonymous sex (but never intimacy) with men he meets when he goes into town—lather, rinse, repeat. From the jump, Joshua James Richards’ austere cinematography captures the harsh, cold landscape and the backbreaking labor life on the farm entails, and it’s easy to see how the loneliness and monotony could eat away at a person’s spirit and form a rough, incredibly thick protective callus around a person’s heart.
When a handsome, slightly older Romanian named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) comes to help out around the farm, it’s not exactly love at first sight between the two. When Johnny isn’t lobbing racist slurs at Gheorghe, he’s all but ignoring him—they sit in silence, letting their hostility toward one another simmer. Yet as they tend to the sheep, Johnny can’t help but begin to develop feelings of a different nature for his new co-worker—the tenderness Gheorghe treats the sheep with is a tenderness Johnny has never known, and it catches him quite off-guard. Furtive looks are exchanged but never acknowledged or quite returned; it takes them a while to suss one another out.
When the two are forced to spend time together camping out in the moors, their slow-burning feelings for one another turn physical, starting as an angry scuffle before culminating into a raw, wordless, muddy sexual release. The film’s approach toward sex and nudity is rather refreshing—the scenes don’t fetishize the two men and their bodies, but it’s also not trying to cover anything up. (Later, for example, the two engage in postcoital half-naked conversation looking completely relaxed and open in a scene that would normally—and unrealistically—involve a sheet pulled up to their elbows.)
Even after the pair have consummated their immense longing, there’s some awkwardness and tentativeness in the air that felt very real. Thus far, Johnny has internally accepted the fact that he’s sexually attracted to men, but he’s still struggling to figure out where that fits into his identity and the way the world sees him. Gheorghe, on the other hand, is more open and more experienced, and it’s his gentle nature that helps Johnny slowly open up in subsequent less hurried sexual encounters and become receptive to a real romantic relationship, especially when they are afforded a few days of domestic bliss while Johnny’s father and grandmother are in the hospital. And as Johnny’s world begins to change, the camerawork loosens up a bit, and the landscapes, too, become a bit more bucolic.
We get the sense that Johnny’s feelings for Gheorghe are confusing at first because while he’s fine having sex with men and accepted that he’s gay, he’s compartmentalized that part of his life: He’s never considered what it might be like to be loved by another man and hold hands with another man in public and have his father and grandmother meet a man he’s spending time with. (You wonder if he’s ever even kissed a man before this point.) This internal conflict—for Johnny, wrestling with the hardened model of masculinity he’s grown up around—is just as important as very real worries about the kind of homophobia one might expect from friends, family, and strangers alike—especially in a rural setting like this one.
And this is where GOD’S OWN COUNTRY subverts narrative expectations. We’ve all seen BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a film GOD’S OWN COUNTRY was clearly a bit influenced by, and we know how it ends all too well. Queer characters have historically not been allowed a happy ending on the big and screens, and from what we’ve seen of Johnny’s family dynamic, there’s unlikely to have been much discussion about sexuality or matters of the heart (or much of anything really). So as we watch Johnny’s grandmother and father slowly begin to notice what’s brewing between Johnny and Gheorghe via glimpses through a window or from afar, we’re bracing ourselves for something bad to happen. Yet it never does—if anything is going to tear these two apart, it’s going to be Johnny lapsing back into his fuck-up ways.
If there’s one misgiving I had about the film, it’s that Gheorghe’s character suffers a bit from “perfect boyfriend syndrome” (see: dear Ritchie from HBO’s dearly departed LOOKING). We see plenty of Johnny’s flaws—which is fair; it’s his emotional journey being presented, more or less—while Gheorghe (played so wonderfully and sensually by Secareanu) is basically an angel sent from Bucharest: He’s making dinner, he’s nuzzling baby lambs, he’s teaching Johnny how to open his heart, he’s leading Johnny to be more understanding in his relationship with his father, he’s forgiving Johnny after a pretty messy betrayal… That’s a lot to ask from a character, and I hope Johnny ultimately sees that and stops being such a Patrick.