Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 19, 2017 4:56 pm 
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Pastoral passion

Francis Lee's powerful, authentic first film is a gay love story set on a sheep farm in Yorkshire and was shot near the pig farm where the filmmaker grew up. The wiry Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) works hard but is considered unreliable by his stolid grandmother Deirdre Saxby (Gemma Jones) and sick father Martin (Ian Hart) because, in his boredom and desperation, he gets drunk at the local by the night, engages in rough feral sex, and awakens in his own vomit many a day. Along comes Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a dark, handsome Romanian to help with the lambing season. Gheorghe speaks very decent English. An American viewer may understand his lines better than the locals'.

What happens is that Gheorghe and Johnny fall in lust, and then in love, while out in the hills working the sheep and camping and sleeping in close proximity, and eyeing each other. It's a rough, wild, sudden scene of scrambling and wrestling in the mud and as a scene of queer first passion it has understandably drawn comparisons with Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain. But this is a different world. It may surprise us that there's no homophobia out here in the boonies but this is Francis Lee's own experience of rural gayness, and this is the present day, not back when A. Annie Proulx's tale was set. There is no tragedy here.

Lee achieves a maximum of harsh agricultural authenticity. The simple elemental feelings may have more in common with D.H. Lawrence than Proulx. When Gheorghe helps in the birthing of a lamb Secareanu does it with such assurance you may be surprised this is an actor doing something he has recently, if thoroughly, learned to do. Dialogue is sparse, heightening the physicality of everything. There is a scene of casual male frontal nudity, and another realistic one of Johnny lifting and bathing his father after he has had a stroke. Hart's mimicry of a stroke victim's crippled speech is remarkable (he and Gemma Jones, pros that they are, deliver splendid, understated performances).You can taste the pasta and the canned noodles.

What is going to happen? The answer is not so much. But there are terrific scenes. I'll remember Deirdre finding a used condom and flushing it down the john (she never says anything); Gheorghe and Johnny having an intense, open conversation at the little pub that other locals must be hearing. I'll remember the various kisses, the lovemaking, Gheorghe pulling Johnny's hand over to him, teaching him tenderness. Johnny is a hard brutal fellow - also not altogether grown up - who's getting humanized and tenderized. He's also deciding to save this relationship that's given him something to live for by learning to behave himself. I'll most remember Johnny's trip to Romania when Gheorghe has left, to bring him back. We're not conditioned for happy endings in gay love stories, but maybe it's time for some, and this is one. But in this sequence, Johnny has an exhausting bus ride, a long walk through the countryside, and a long wait after an indifferent reception, many cigarettes. Gheorghe, working at an industrial farm job now, is hostile. The slow turnaround is nicely handled.

The atmosphere and setting are the thing here, and they are gold. There's a subliminal interplay of conflict between feeling the life is numbing and cruel and celebrating the intense beauty of the land and of living close to it. Gheorghe teaches Johnny that too, but also that as his own country is "dead," the Yorkshire sheep farm isn't ultimately going to survive either.

Though minute-to-minute this film has a novelistic richness, it lacks the complexity of a novel. Most of it is predictable, and a little too safe. But this stuff is good just the same. God's Own Country, a powerful and distinctive first film, is more than a "calling card" and, anyway, it seems Lee isn't about to answer the call of Hollywood. He may make less iconic but more complex films with equally great sense of milieu in his promising future. One thinks of Andrew Haigh, his intense gay first film, and the amazing and different second film he made.

God's Own Country, 105 mins., debuted at Sundance, has won a raft of nominations and awards at two dozen festivals, including the World Cinema - Dramatic Best Directing award at Sundance. Opened in the US 25 Oct. 2017. Metacritic rating 86%. Watched 19 Nov. during a limited showing at Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley.

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