God’s Own Country and the Rural Queer Experience

So far, 2017 has been an excellent year for LGBTQ+ cinema. Queer baiting from the likes of Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers aside, we’ve seen The Handmaiden released to modest success and Call Me by Your Name and Beach Rats catch the attention of the mainstream gay media. As the moonlight fades from this year’s triumph at the Oscars, we seem to be basking in the glow of a new dawn.

God’s Own Country, which is set in rural West Yorkshire, may sound like the title a rose-tinted, poeticised insight into pastoral Britain – but it’s anything but. Cast in the muted shadows of the Yorkshire Dales, this is a bleak, harsh, and brutal depiction of working class life. But, as director Francis Lee points out, the film attempts to actively steer away from stereotyping rural communities as conservative, grim, and, most importantly, homophobic.

It would be easy to compare this film to Ang Lee’s seminal gay drama (‘The Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain’ has become something of a tagline), but this is wildly inaccurate. Brokeback Mountain turned outwards, reflecting on society’s homophobia during a time when homosexuality was still illegal, whereas Lee’s feature is concerned more with intimacy and, as a result, turns inwards.

God’s Own Country sees Johnny struggle with the reality of working life – his friends have left for uni, his downtime consists of binge drinking and selfish, empty sex, and he’s struggling to find purpose in what has become an oppressive and trapping environment. After his father suffers a stroke, his family take on a Romanian migrant during lambing season, in order to ease the workload on the farm.
Naturally, Johnny’s xenophobia causes friction between him and Gheorghe, but, as the film develops, Gheorghe’s delicate and mature hand helps guide Johnny through the birth of the farm’s livestock – and his first foray into intimate, meaningful sexual experiences.

It would be erroneous to label this as a coming of age story: Johnny’s sexuality goes almost unnoticed by other characters, presumably suggesting that he is already out, nor is this an innocent and twee look at first love. No, this is a brutally honest study of masculinity and, as Francis Lee has pointed out, the main focus of the film is about how vulnerable we have to make ourselves to fall in love.

One of the most impressive elements of this film is its commitment to authenticity. Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu, who play Johnny and Gheorghe respectively, were ordered to work 12 hour days on a farm three months prior to shooting. Scenes in which the pair deliver lambs are strikingly real – and Lee’s lens doesn’t shy away for even a moment. The sex scenes are equally frank, even if they may seem tame in comparison to something as pornographic as Stranger by the Lake.

This is a simple narrative, effortlessly told with a sharp script. At its core is a paradox: a film that appears to be sparse – in language, sound, visuals – but also incredibly meticulous. Lee spent years perfecting the dialogue, which perceptively cuts through the narrative and into the heart of the characters. Non-verbal cues fill in the gaps and, if anything, speak louder than the snippets of brash Yorkshire dialect. Along with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, visually the film appears up close, its claustrophobia denying the viewer of wide shots of rolling hills and sun kissed-mountaintops, in favour of focusing on these characters’ insular worlds. Only when they learn to connect does the landscape open up, albeit briefly. It’s at this moment (and only a handful of other moments in the film) that music plays. Elsewhere, the soundscape is constructed from hours of recordings of wind – each sound was painstakingly chosen to signal the arrival of each character, their spirit catching on the breeze. Birdsong is also integral to the film’s sound; curlews and swallows were chosen to align with themes of monogamy, spring, and hope.

In a film as textured as this, it’s easy to get caught up in the world that Lee has created. But it’s also interesting to engage with its politics. Lee has denied any political intent when discussing the film, but O’Connor is clearly pleased that it is being recognised for its anti-Brexit sentiments. However unintentional, there is a politics to the film’s choice to engage with LGBTQ+ and migrant peoples – and there is no harm in praising its sensitive and insightful depictions of queer and immigrant lives that, thankfully, don’t end in tragedy. With most of our popular LGBTQ+ figures, filmmakers, and characters existing in middle-class surroundings or urban poverty, it’s refreshing – and important – to see rural depictions of queer folk such as this, in order to understand their lives and break from ignorant stereotypes.

The film has been shown in a handful of cinemas across the country prior to release, accompanied by a Q+A with the director. At Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, Lee came across as modest and humble, with an eye for detail and a deep respect for his actors. Francis Lee grew up on a sheep farm in West Yorkshire. Even though he only moved back a few years ago, you get the impression that the Yorkshire landscape is something that has remained burrowed beneath his skin. At 48, this passion for the land has been unearthed in God’s Own Country.

With awards success at Sundance and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, it was surprising to see the Q+A in Sheffield filled with middle class and elderly locals, rather than hipster millennials and white, middle-class bloggers. It served as a testament to the film’s acknowledgement that rural Yorkshire communities are not rampant with homophobia that all questions asked by the audience engaged intelligently with the films’ queer elements.

Collectively, the room was bound together by open minds, a devotion to Yorkshire, and an acknowledgement that this is an exceptionally beautiful film that, while bleak, offers a hopeful future – for its characters and what lies ahead for rural queer representation.

God’s Own Country will be released nationwide on September 1st.

Words: Liam Taft