Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.
The isolated moor of West Riding of Yorkshire is cold and seemingly swallowed up by either the fog or the stratus clouds — sometimes both. It certainly doesn’t look like a place where a budding romance can be cultivated. But somehow, Francis Lee (“The Farmer’s Wife”), the writer and director of what is now being heralded as the United Kingdom’s “Brokeback Mountain,” makes it possible.
“God’s Own Country” focuses on Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) and his life on the barren lands of Yorkshire. Diverting from the ubiquitous path of college, Johnny spends his days working the land, farming sheep, averting confrontation with his parents and putting up barricades — literally and figuratively.
His life can only be characterized by a state of paralysis, in which any opportunity other than taking after his father as a sheep farmer is absent. And his anger shows that he’s well aware of these limitations.
But when Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu), a handsome but stoic Romanian migrant worker, arrives at the Saxby estate, a new light is sparked in Johnny.
Francis Lee has created a wonderfully complex character with Johnny Saxby, in which his repressions have multiple faces. There’s his sexuality that he is furtive about around his mother and father, and then there’s his hermetic emotional side that makes sex initially passionless, save for the aggression that stems from his inner self-hatred and disappointment.
From the outset, it seems that Johnny is someone who is better off alone.
However, with Gheorghe’s arrival, the audience witnesses the unraveling of Johnny Saxby. It’s a process that is patient, beautiful and even a little awkward, rendering O’Connor’s portrayal all the more honest.
With the help of Yorkshire’s lush landscape, cinematographer Joshua James Richards (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”) takes advantage of every opportunity to create beautiful scenes that are both intimate — with low lighting and tight shots in the claustrophobic RV — and sublime — with long shots of the moors shrouded by the fog.
At the premiere of his film for Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, Francis Lee emphasized that Yorkshire is a place that is dearly personal to him. And with “God’s Own Country,” to say that he does justice to his beloved home would be an understatement.