Francis Lee’s stark, striking God’s Own Country is one of several significant films this year to depict hard-edged men softening, opening up, finding the courage to admit that everything they need to get through this life isn’t already inside them. The protagonist, raw-eyed farm boy Johnny (Josh O’Connor), has inherited from his father a brusque coldness, a silence that he seems to consider fitting for a man from the rough hills of northern England. There, beneath gray-tufted skies he’s too diffident to find beautiful, Johnny tends his father’s sheep — but often wakes up so hung over can’t be bothered with the upkeep of the fences and paddocks. On trips into town, Johnny grits his way through no-kissing shags with men he won’t make eye contact with; at home, the strained quiet is broken only by the bleats of the flock, the complaints of his grandmother (Gemma Jones) or the carping of his father. It’s not the life Johnny wants, but he can’t seem to imagine what that life might look like, and the tongue-tied young man certainly couldn’t articulate.
Fortunately, it comes to him. Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a strapping yet tender Romanian lad hired on for a week to help Johnny rebuild a stone wall. Johnny pushes Gheorghe away all the ways that Johnny knows how, first asking if he’s “half Paki or Summat” and later just shoving him into the mud. Eventually, alone at the hump where hill meets sky, Johnny’s bullying provokes Gheorghe into pinning him. And then, in the mud and clover, they make love, their pale bodies smeared with earth. (Director of photography Joshua James Richards shoots sheep country the way Johnny sees it: horizon-wide but also cramped, the clouds bunched up like a migraine.)
Lee’s film, scraped of all sentimentality, is frank about sex and livestock. Gheorghe, who has already lost a family farm back home, shows Johnny how some gentleness and consideration improve the lives of the animals. That lesson, it turns out, applies to human relations as well. For once, Johnny’s sex life isn’t brutal and anonymous. Lee and his cast make momentous firsts of romantic basics: Johnny’s first smile flashes about an hour in, and his first real kiss — a moment of trust and sharing — soars. Gheorghe’s enthusiasms extend even to sheep country itself. Guided by him, Johnny at last notes its beauty and that a life here might be worth living after all.
Of course, Gheorghe is only a temporary worker, living in a camper. And Johnny’s family, we presume, likely wouldn’t know what to make of their son taking a male lover. So, this romance remains on the down-low, until Lee’s script — like the performances, it’s scrupulously shaped and never false — pits them against the crises any viewer knows will be coming. More pressing, though, is the turmoil inside Johnny: Before he could possibly tell his father what Gheorghe means to him, can he even tell Gheorghe? In his debut feature, Lee has crafted a mature love story centered on an immature man facing the fear of even admitting that he needs love at all. It’s a film to prize.