Toughness and tenderness duke it out to the bittersweet end of “God’s Own Country,” a transporting, wrenchingly acted love story set in the windswept wilds of northern England. A near-flawless first feature written and directed by Francis Lee, the movie tracks the aching bond that develops between two young men — one a Yorkshire lad who’s toiled on his family farm his whole life, the other a Romanian migrant looking for little more than a place to work and rest his head.
Life isn’t easy on this rugged landscape, but sometimes, Lee suggests, it can be kind enough to bring the right people together, even under circumstances that could hardly seem less ideal, let alone romantic. When we first meet the loutish 24-year-old Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), he’s hunched over a toilet, emptying the contents of his stomach after another long night at the pub. The next morning he’s back at work in body if not in spirit, wearily building a fence, taking a cow to auction and then impulsively picking up a young man with whom he steals a few moments in the privacy of a cattle trailer.
“Want to get a pint?” the other man asks afterward. “No,” Johnny grunts, bewildered. Sexual release, like everything else in his life, is a matter of physical necessity, something to be achieved with as little conversation or eye contact as possible. Johnny’s a rough, but he isn’t angry or disaffected. He’s simply been worn down by a life of ceaseless labor and few other options, one that has taken a similar toll on his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and his father, Martin (Ian Hart), who is too physically weak at this point to do much more than chide and bark orders. (The veteran Jones and Hart give touching, layered performances here in slyly counterintuitive roles.)
In need of help during the busy lambing season, the Saxbys hire Gheorghe (Romanian actor Alec Secareanu), a strikingly handsome 27-year-old laborer with a dark goatee, soft eyes and, despite his distant roots, a preternatural kinship with his surroundings. (The craggy terrain and majestic skies are shot with rough-and-tumble beauty by Joshua James Richards.) When the two young men camp out on the moors for several nights, Johnny’s rude indifference gradually subsides as he notices Gheorghe’s effortless way with the flock, the instinctive connection he seems to achieve with everything around him, from a sickly lamb he’s nursing back to health to the stones he and Johnny are using to build a makeshift wall.
Before long the two men will fall into their own passionate communion, and here, too, the older one has much to impart to the younger. After their clumsy, mud-spattered first coupling, the more patient Gheorghe begins to temper the violence inherent in Johnny’s lust, initiating him in the pleasures of a fireside kiss or a lingering caress. By the time the two head back down the mountain, an emotional bond has formed, albeit one that can flourish in secret for only so long.
Since it first screened this year at the Sundance Film Festival, “God’s Own Country” has drawn frequent comparisons to “Brokeback Mountain,” for reasons both understandable and misleading. Ang Lee’s 2005 triumph may be an overused gay-cinema reference point, but “God’s Own Country” does have more in common with that film than merely a director’s surname and a tale of two shepherds. While Francis Lee’s film is less epic and more economical in scale, and also appreciably franker in its depiction of sexuality, the two movies share a raw, explosive physicality, an understanding that the laws of attraction can feel as disruptive and undeniable as nature itself.
One crucial difference is that the new movie is set in the present day, and even in English farm country, where years of tradition and conservatism hold sway, the love that once dared not speak its name can now at least murmur it on occasion. One of the satisfactions of “God’s Own Country” is that the possibility of exposure and persecution never becomes the real threat to Johnny and Gheorghe’s union. It’s the question of whether their devotion to each other can survive the relentless ebb and flow of their tough, hardscrabble lives, the only lives they’ve ever known.
That question is answered with a sigh, a shrug and a pinch of old-fashioned Hollywood optimism that feels all the more affecting in these earthy, downbeat environs. Francis Lee’s depiction of farm life, rich in quotidian detail, can only have gained in grit and conviction from his own West Yorkshire upbringing.
But even without those markers of authenticity, the film would rest quite assuredly on its young leads’ muscular shoulders. In the push-pull between Secareanu’s resonant stillness and O’Connor’s barely sublimated intensity, you feel the struggle of two souls forging a path toward each other, gradually realizing that while life may be harsh and unforgiving, love doesn’t have to be.
‘God’s Own Country’
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: AMC Dine-In Sunset 5, West Hollywood