I grew up in Britain in the 1970s, when gays were nudge nudge, wink wink figures of fun in entertainment, and little more. Was the country free, Mr Humphries? It seldom felt like it.
Thankfully, come the ‘80s, when, thanks to the divisive, abrasive Margaret Thatcher’s iron rule, people’s politics started to harden, and gay storylines became de rigueur in soaps and dramas and homosexualists entered the mainstream. The terror of AIDS served to either confirm or wash away prejudice. The tabloids continued to treat homosexuality as something that must be “confessed” by celebrities right through this progressive decade, and homophobia is still horribly rife among certain knots of men. But much progress has been made. The Sun still objectifies women and reduces anything complex to single syllables and capital letters, but the simple act of being gay isn’t the news story it once might have been.
Brits voted for Brexit two and a half years after your proudly European writer quit living in that same country of his birth. So it can be no accident that my favourite film of the 2010s explicitly addresses immigration and shows foreign intervention and integration (of sorts) into English society as a positive force.
The sunset snapshot above was taken by director Francis Lee while shooting his debut, a deeply personal love story God’s Own Country. Actually, it’s his own country. His first feature is based on his own life, brought up a family farm and forced to decide: should he stay or should he go? The protagonist disdains friends who’ve dared to leave this God-forsaken corner of the world, wallowing in boredom and alcohol. Day in and day out, Johnny, a farmer’s son leading a miserable self-loathing existence (Josh O’Connor – known to many as one of ITV’s The Durrells) goes to bed drunk and wakes up vomiting. That’s until the arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian hired hand brought on to the family farm when Johnny’s father (Ian Hart) is incapacitated, and who derails Johnny’s self-destructive mechanisms, or at least the repetitiveness of it all.
It’s shot – beautifully, by Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards – around Keighley, the Yorkshire town where, funnily enough, Mollie Sugden a.k.a Mrs Slocombe from Are You Being Served? hailed from.
A beneficiary of its countryfile setting (the very real lambing scenes were on the director’s father’s farm), visually and metaphorically, it’s a small-scale story set against boundless fields and skies whose intimacy is twofold: it’s based on Lee’s own experience, and it depicts the eventual intimacy of two men. Some early devotees of the film thumbnailed it as Brokeback Mountain transposed to the Dales, but this comparison quickly sputters out, like a quad bike out of petrol. Johnny isn’t explicitly closeted – he enjoys random hook-ups with twinks at the only pub for miles and his female friend (Patsy Ferron) knows – but if his taciturn father knows, he would rather die than face up to it. You get the impression his icy grandmother (the brilliant Gemma Jones) does, but she keeps her own counsel. The Yorkshire countryside appears endless in God’s Own Country, yet there’s seemingly no room for feelings here, or silly tourists with their juvenile sound files.
The story is built around this difficult developing gay male love affair, but it’s not a “gay” film in the militant sense. The two men’s relationship is far more than about sex, and they spend most of their time alone together, repairing a dry stone wall or involved in animal husbandry for days at a time, sleeping in sleeping bags in a remote shed, living on nothing but Pot Noodles and cans of beer, their conversations punctuated by long, long silences that makes it feel very, very real.
They are free to do whatever it is they want to do, with no disapproving eyes on them. The problem is not “society”. (Indeed, Gheorghe is the one who’s not welcome at the pub because of his ethnicity. At least Johnny is “from round these parts” – his transgressions are hidden from the eyes of bar-stool bigots.) Before Gheorghe’s arrival – his “welcome” is almost comically bluff, as Johnny shows him his shitty caravan and slams the door shut – Johnny is already at a crossroads about his future and his family, and dealing with it by self-medicating. The unexpected promise of a loving same-sex relationship is clearly more than he can deal with, emotionally.
The dreaded yet ever-enticing figure of the foreign guest ends up exposing what Johnny had been working so hard to keep bottled up, and it all oozes out in the most maladroit of ways. Writer-director Lee vividly captures the gracelessness with which long-buried feelings rise to the surface when, in a secluded part of the Yorkshire countryside, Johnny approaches Gheorghe like a predator. The sex between them begins as a fight—deadlocked by desire, shame, and Johnny’s complete illiteracy in matters of the heart. How to untangle a knot if roughness is all one knows? They push each other to the ground, rolling on the dirt and huffing like animals. Nobody says a word.
There are vast lacunas in the plot, filled with the unblinking performance of Josh O’Connor, made more memorable because most of it is done without words. Everyone else revolves around him, but he remains essentially a hole at the centre of the doughnut. It is a characterisation of great depth, and God’s Own Country is a strange, inexplicably compelling story, and one so moving because at its elliptical heart, Lee manages to paint a multi-dimensional portrait of Johnny and his family dynamics—one that feels at once incredibly British and uncannily familiar.
This is a film about masculinity as an impossible and necessarily toxic project. Lee captures not only what masculinity does and how it comes undone, but the complex apparatus that keeps it into place: the family’s surveillance, the silence, the shame. But guess what? This one doesn’t have a horrible outcome. There is no all too familiar trope of “gays must be seen to suffer” and be denied a happy ending.
Ultimately God’s Own Country might well be a film for Brexit, whether intended or otherwise. It’s certainly Gheorghe, the Romanian, who saves the rejected lamb from being culled using techniques he has brought with him to this country. Farming today, eh?
BONUS: For what it’s worth, off the top of my head there are quite a few other movies that made an impact on me in the last few years. As it’s the last day of the year and the decade here they are, in pointless list form. See if you can guess which one of the folIowing actually had a small walk-on part in…
A Quiet Place
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Call Me By Your Name
Rise Of The Planet of the Apes
The Love Witch
Springsteen On Broadway
X Men: First Class
A Star Is Born
The Iron Lady
Inside Llewyn Davis
Please do share your own. Nobody’s opinion counts for more than anybody else’s. (Oh, and by the way, of course I included The Iron Lady, which, despite Streep’s Oscar-winning portrayal, is probably only a three-star film, but this is my list, it is the list that is mine, and what it is, too.
Oh, so did you guess correctly?
I was, among others, The Man From UNCLE, Captain America and X Men: First Class, though perhaps not in the way I would have liked. Damn.