God’s Own Country: It’s not grim up North
Logline: Alcoholic teen farmer Johnny’s world is turned happily upside down by a Romanian migrant.
Verdict: Independent filmmaker Francis Lee (Me Without You) makes an unlikely yet rough-and-ready love story all the more poignant in Brexit Britain in God’s Own Country with alcoholic young recluse Johnny (Josh O’Connor), dragged up by his father (Ian Hart) to work on the family lamb farm. As his dad undergoes the effects of a degenerative illness, additional migrant help is hired in the form of Georghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu). As the hard work begins to crush him, Johnny’s depressing nights of heavy drinking are slowly challenged by the discovery that he might find happiness after all.
It’s not often you see any picture managing to bring the beauty and tranquility of God’s own county, Yorkshire, to life. The initial chapters of the film show off the mind-numbing mundanity of the life of a farmer, even getting into the icky details of rearing animals. All of it, including birthing sequences and checking animal genitalia, is put on full display, getting you into the monotonous rhythm of the country: how rough an intimate connection with nature can be to handle.
To relieve all the heavy labor, the warmly real love story at the heart of this piece is especially welcome. When laborer Georghe arrives, God’s Own Country shows how both he and Johnny are rebellious at heart, with a scornful, cynical view of life. What starts as hostile turns into something else entirely.
Georghe introduces Johnny to a softer side of love, not the quick one-night encounters to which the young Yorkshire lad is accustomed, heartfelt and utterly sad in its own special way. Josh O’Connor (Bridgend) brings layers to Johnny’s overwhelming loneliness to sink the viewer into the sadness of his little life, portraying not only the rough, laddish exterior disregarding any camaraderie or familial contact, but profound emotional damage from years of isolation thanks to the farming lifestyle. O’Connor manages to mine that brutality throughout the film, finally erupting in happy and jump-for-joy moments later.
Elsewhere, Alec Secareanu (Adalbert’s Dream) brings a little humor and gentleness to Georghe, and Ian Hart (Finding Neverland) is stunning as Johnny’s father, Martin, playing each level of degenerative illness slowly and carefully.
God’s Own Country is a welcome surprise. Not only is it a show-and-tell about one of the world’s most beautiful and underrepresented regions, it manages to bear out, beneath the hearty pastoral landscapes, an even more earthy and happy connection with the world. Some imagery might turn audiences off – not everyone wants to watch lambs being born and cows’ genitalia being medically attended to – but the love story here is as authentic and wonderful as any other great filmic romance.