Of Rams and Men

God’s Own Country
(UK, 104 min.)
Written and directed by Francis Lee
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart
Pacific Northwest Pictures
I don’t know if “ramming” is a thing, but let’s use it as a verb since there’s a whole lotta rough play with sheep and men in God’s Own Country. There’s ample ramming between Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) in the muddy and ragged Yorkshire countryside during one week of unexpected love and profound revelations. Quick fucks and tough love ensue in this restrained and thoughtful love story as God’s Own Country gives an unsentimental yet moving tale of desire. This film by writer/director Francis Lee takes place in the quiet grey farmland of Yorkshire, and it owes a debt to Brokeback Mountain with its rugged portrayal of newfound love between two men.

Johnny clearly has issues when God’s Own Country begins with the lad waking up visibly hung over and vomiting violently into the toilet. His mum (Gemma Jones) insists that she isn’t cleaning his sick up “again” while dad (Ian Hart) rolls his eyes at Johnny and tells his disappointment of a son to get a move on. Johnny moves slowly around the family farm, partly because he’s recovering from the previous night of hard drinking and partly because he is so detached and withdrawn from his surroundings. He isn’t out to his parents and he isn’t entirely honest with himself as evidenced through his drunken escapes.

God’s Own Country show Johnny struggle through a dull routine of drinking, vomiting, struggling, and screwing up. He can’t complete simple tasks on the farm. When he gets the chance to leave the family farm, his mind is on rough and anonymous casual sex, like blowing and ramming a veterinarian (Harry Lister Smith) at the auction where he aims to sell some livestock. Johnny isn’t one for sentimentality, as his cold rebuff of the young man shows shortly after their brusque tryst in a trailer.

O’Connor keeps the audience at a distance in the film’s first act with his quiet, brooding, and anxious performance. Johnny wears his confusion and sense of alienation like a gruff and surly cloak. It’s hard to be out, open, happy, and secure in such a small and isolated town, particularly when his parents are so puritanical in their approach to love and labour. He’s more like a lodger earning his keep than a son welcome in his own home, and O’Connor’s quietly affecting performance that rewards patience with this difficult character.

 Johnny adopts a sunnier hue when Gheorghe arrives at the farm as a hired hand. This Romanian migrant worker piques Johnny’s interest—maybe it’s his eyes or his exotic charm—but Johnny keeps up the same standoffish behaviour. He masks his interest with racist slurs and classist putdowns.

God’s Own Country inspires Johnny to explore new terrain when he and Gheorghe ship off for a few days to deliver and raise some sheep offsite. Sleeping in close quarters and left with nobody but one other for contact, the isolation of the countryside invites intimacy. Lee draws upon the physicality of Johnny and Gheorghe’s passion with their first encounters emphasizing cuts, scrapes, spit, and mud. Their relationship begins randomly, but develops quickly and tenderly.

The Yorkshire countryside is a powerful figure in the film as the damp masculine setting of muddy fields, rickety barns, and rolling hillsides evoke the conservatism of the small town, and the pulls of escape and freedom invited by the private space the men find while tending the sheep. When Johnny finally unlocks himself to this stranger, Lee opens the landscape to the young men as Johnny and Gheorghe take in the expansive and rugged beauty of the English countryside and the endless sense of possibility it invites with comforting hills that roll into the distance. Other subtle touches, like Gheorghe intimately dousing salt all over Johnny’s food, let God’s Own Country offer a smart, down to earth romantic drama that challenges conventional ideas of masculinity with this tender story. The film intimately connects the land and its people, and this tale of rams and men shows that love exists in the most unexpected places.

God’s Own Country opens Friday, November 3 at TIFF Lightbox and it screens at Ottawa’s Inside Out fest on Nov. 10.