Finally, a movie that sets Brokeback Mountain straight. In God’s Own Country, British director Francis Lee corrects Ang Lee’s 2004 hit by making a Yorkshire-set version of that queer-on-the-range tale.
Young John Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who works his disabled father’s farm and shepherds his lamb flock, doesn’t wait for “a coupla high-altitude fucks once or twice a year” as Jake Gyllenhaal laughably cried to Heath Ledger. Instead, John goes to town and grabs what he can. He comes home drunk and sick, miserable with loneliness (which disguises the self-hatred stage) until Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) appears. Their libidos are star-crossed.
God’s Own Country depicts the two men’s passion and need. It’s the simplest love story, not a culture-changing landmark as Brokeback Mountain was proclaimed by the mainstream media caught up, as usual, in its patronizing squeamishness about gay sexuality—specifically its hypocritical reticence about how men abstain or manage their urges. Through John and Gheorghe, God’s Own Country confronts the complexity of sexual adventure and release, physical and emotional engagement, impersonal or committed attraction.
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An after-sex conversation features John’s personal revelation in a phallically graphic way, as New Statesman’s Ryan Gilbey noted in a comparison to Julianne Moore’s flaming bush scene in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). Such taboo frankness is what the mainstream media has ignored in the many good gay films that have appeared since Brokeback Mountain but without that film’s bourgeois tastefulness, sappy sentimentality and crappily contrived view of male sex. (Brokeback pretended that bisexual crossing-over was a millennial innovation).
John hangs ten like Vincent Perez already did in Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. (and Huey Lewis also in Altman’s Short Cuts). This matter-of-factness gives God’s Own Country authentic erotic appeal.
When the international press proclaims God’s Own Country for arguable political reasons (Variety touted it “advances a pro-immigration subtext that couldn’t be more timely amid the closing borders of Brexit-era Britain”), queer life once again gets exploited for political propaganda purposes. But the film’s real value is humane—and irresistibly romantic.
John’s pale, rough-hewn features show anger, strain and awkwardness. His eyes are unfocused, closed-off as if staring into a hopeless distance. Unused to communicating, he looks into Gheorghe’s soulful countenance and the film soars. Gheorghe’s wide eyes, deep voice, full cheeks peppered with light beard and a head of dark curly hair are a perfect contrast. His East European exoticism and sensual openness seem a romantic cliché going back before even D.H. Lawrence, but it’s fundamental: The troubled boy and the dreamy boy pairing is every gay’s ideal.
Francis Lee acknowledges the great realist Mike Leigh (Happy Go Lucky, Secrets and Lies) whose influence figures in the film’s lifelike sensitivity. A scene where John touches his comatose dad’s (Ian Hart) hand, showing the intimacy he could never openly express, seems as real as his mother’s (Gemma Jones) quiet despair which she, too, manages sensibly.
These moments are more authentic than Brokeback Mountain’s trite melodrama. So is Gheorghe’s “It’s beautiful here but lonely, no? When I was a kid I thought I would never leave my farm.” Having crossed a continent, he confides his need for a separate peace, a place to belong. (“I can’t do that again. There was someone,” he reveals.) Heartbroken Gheorghe needs more than political sanctuary which compliments John’s own tactile longing. He’s impressed by the confident way Gheorghe skins a lamb, putting the still-warm coat on an orphaned babe to give it a new, nurturing identity. John’s hot for Gheorghe but he also appreciates his capacity for protection, affection, caring, loving.
It is predictable when the lovers part, but then there’s reunion. Gayness is their international language (“You’re a freak. Faggot,” assures one. “So are you,” confirms the other). Both understand how to cross social boundaries with personal affinity.
What’s refreshing about God’s Own Country is its in-your-face counterpoint to Brokeback Mountain’s phoniness. Scots pop singer Billy Mackenzie’s 1990 album Wild and Lonely, which critic John Demetry praised in The Community of Desire (available on Amazon) for reversing pop culture’s retreat from gay progress, might have inspired a more fitting title, but the title God’s Own Country makes its own philosophical and spiritual argument: When John and Gheorghe look upon the vast landscape, their fulfilled bodies and awakened senses compliment nature.