“I want to be with you. And that what’s needed to be said.”
I think one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with is allowing myself to fall in love and be loved. I was a loner most of my life – and enjoyed being that way. I was always very private and guarded about my emotions. Fourteen years ago somebody barreled into my life and would not take no for an answer, chipping away at my defenses and walls I’d built up. The fact that it happened around this time of year – on the days leading up to Valentine’s Day – makes it more romantic.
I have a great affinity for “God’s Own Country” (2017) – the film debut of Francis Lee. It was released in the US around the same time that “Call me By Your Name” was in theatres – another love story involving two men which ended up sadly overshadowing the former. Another peculiarity about its release is how critics kept comparing it to “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) – a fact that I found perplexing. Yes, it’s about two men and their feelings towards another – and they’re sheep farmers, but besides having that in common – there couldn’t be two films more different.
If there’s a film I would compare it to would be “Wuthering Heights” – it definitely has the feel of a Bronte sisters novel. It takes place in West Yorkshire – where the landscape is characterized by upland areas of high moorland indented by more fertile river valleys. Johnny lives on the family farm with his grandmother Deirdre and his father, Martin – who recently suffered a stroke. Because of this, Johnny has to take care of most of the monotonous day to day duties. The farm is failing. Deirdre is constantly asking him to pick up after himself – and his dad is nagging him about the details of how to do things properly. Martin is disappointed when a calf dies because of Johnny’s apparent negligence.
Johnny is gay and has furtive sexual encounters with men about town or at auctions. The sex he has is angry and anonymous. He doesn’t want to connect. It’s as if growing up with so many animals, he is unable to relate to other humans. Unlike the characters in “Brokeback” – which was set in the 60s – Johnny is not suffering from self-loathing – but a fear of being himself – and that he will be rejected by his family. He’s repressed his own feelings. He drinks every night at the local pub until he gets sick and Deirdre tells him she cannot be cleaning up after him. This cycle has gone on for a while.
Needing an extra hand with the lambing season, they put an ad for temporary help. Georghe – a handsome Romanian migrant worker – shows up. He stays in a Caravan across the main building. He speaks English well because his mother was an English teacher back home. Johnny pejoratively calls him gypsy. “Bet you wish you’d stayed back in Romania,” Johnny tells him.
Georghe has knowledge and a gentle way with the sheep. He asks Deirdre why haven’t they tried making cheese from their milk. In a stunning scene for its beauty and symbolism, a recently born lamb has lost its mother and has to be fed manually. Another ewe gives birth to a stillborn and Georghe takes its skin and creates a coat for the baby lamb. It is then allowed to milk from the mother.
Georghe and Johnny have to camp a couple of nights on the higher part of the farm – fixing a stone fence, staying in an abandoned barn. Johnny makes a move on Georghe and they have forceful, passionate sex – and there’s lots of mud involved. I should point out that it is not graphic. If this were a film about two straight people, this scene would be overlooked. It is essential to the story for you to understand the way that Johnny reacts is an unwillingness to be tender – and all his pent up emotions – and his reluctance to be vulnerable.
The cinematography by Joshua James Richards – who will be nominated for the Oscar this coming year for his phenomenal work in Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadaland” – is a thing of wonder. It’s all done in recessive colors – enhancing the harsh environment. In one moment when Georghe points out the beauty of the country, the camera finally – like Johnny – opens up and breathes it all in. As the movie progresses warmer tones start making their way into the scheme. The acting by the four leads is superb – emoting without much dialogue but communicating plenty of information. Josh O’Connor plays Johnny, Gemma Jones is Deirdre, Alec Secareanu is Georghe and Ian Hart pays Martin.
Francis Lee based the script on his own experiences. He followed this work with the equally brooding “Ammonite” (2020) starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. More great things will be done by him.
Georghe: “In my country, spring is the most beautiful. The sun. The flowers. The smells.”
Available to stream on Hulu, Hoopla, Kanopy, Pluto TV and Tubi. Available to rent on Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime and FandangoNOW.
Written and Directed by Francis Lee
Starring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secăreanu, Gemma Jones and Ian Hart
Writer and Director Francis Lee on Bringing “God’s Own Country” to the Screen
Lee grew up on the family pig farm in the village of Soyland, in Calderdale, with the hills as his playground. As the youngest child, with the smallest hands, it was his job to deliver the piglets. He grins. “My mum used to tell a story that I’d have one hand up a pig’s vagina pulling out the piglets and the other on a bacon butty. So there was a complete circle of life.” Not exactly The Lion King is it? “No, but I’ve always been pragmatic about life on a farm.” At 12 or 13, Lee says he decided he wanted to be an actor, and knuckled down at school to get the grades for drama college. Coming out was not particularly important, he says. “It was a kind of non-event. I think it is for lots of people. Which can be disappointing in a sense.” He left home at 20 for the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in Sidcup. As an actor, Lee was never a household name, but he worked steadily in film and TV, hitting a career high when his film-making hero Mike Leigh cast him in 1999’s Topsy-Turvy. Then, seven years ago, after a stint on “Heartbeat,” he jacked it in. “I’d fallen out of love with acting, and I’d just get into arguments with directors.” About what? “Because really I wanted to tell my own stories. It got to a point where I turned 40 and thought, I’d better do this or it’s never going to happen.” Taking a job at a scrapyard to make ends meet, he directed two short films. He wrote half of the script for “God’s Own Country” in a static caravan on his dad’s farm and the other half in London. “I type with only one finger, and it’s quite loud.” While the story is not autobiographical, Lee admits there might be a little what-if fantasising about what would have happened if he’d stayed in Yorkshire.
While working at the scrapyard Lee made friends with a Romanian guy – “the most beautiful, lovely man” – who had been on the receiving end of xenophobic abuse in London. His experiences fed into the character of Gheorghe. Lee doesn’t want to go into details of what his friend went through. “That’s his story. But I was shocked and ashamed of the reaction that he got in my country.”…“When I wrote it, it was pre- even the notion of a referendum. I think I was tapping the migrant worker/immigration experience, but I wasn’t thinking about it in a political way at all.” The morning the referendum result came through last June, he was sitting with his editor to view the first cut: “We watched in silence, thinking we might have made a period piece.” He smiles. “We didn’t actually change the edit at all in the end.” (theguardian.com)
Lee on Casting Josh O’Connor as John
“I worked with a casting director in the UK, and I knew that I didn’t want to work with someone famous. I didn’t want an audience to come to this film with a particular view of the actor who was playing the part. I wanted the audience to be fully immersed in this world, and for nothing to detract from that. The first time I saw Josh was in a self-tape, because he was away working, so I had never met him, and he delivered such a beautiful, subtle performance that really piqued my interest. He felt very of the world already, and then I met him. He’s actually very different from the character. He’s very middle class, he’s very polite, he’s funny, and what we call in the UK “posh.” He’s got a posh accent, and he’d been to drama school. I was surprised by that, but then when I worked with him in the room, he transformed himself again into this character. I met him quite a few times, and it was very important to me to work with somebody who could work the way I wanted to work, which is very detailed, very rigorous, very authentic, and also somebody I felt I could reach out to and push and focus, and get him to dig deeper. There’s a big responsibility for actors. Being in front of the camera is tough. Doing nothing is hard, but when you’re asking someone to open up and be vulnerable and access those emotions, it’s terrifying, so I protect my actors massively, above everything else. I try and create such a secure environment that they feel really able to make themselves vulnerable. I worked for three months with Josh before we started the shoot. We built the character from the moment he was born to the moment you see him in the film, when you’re first introduced to him, and we knew everything about him, every minute detail we knew about him, so that he was really primed. In the actual rehearsal period, I shipped him off to a farm and he worked with the farmer there.” (moviemaker.com)
Josh O’Connor on Preparing for the Role of John
“It’s a weird one because, we imagine ‘method acting’ is Daniel Day-Lewis living as that character at all times,” he says. “It wasn’t like that. I spoke in the accent and didn’t speak to anyone on set, minus an interaction with Francis and Alec when I had to. I worked on the farm for real. It was all about focus. Basically, acting is being a child. You know when you play cowboys when you’re a child? It’s basically that I get to play that all the time. Why wouldn’t you just extend that? It was partly for fun, partly for focus. And now I know that’s definitely the best way to work.” O’Connor adds that he loves hearing about Day-Lewis’s various escapades, admiring his work on There Will Be Blood…Part of God’s Own Country’s realism comes from the accents, and O’Connor spent a long time working on an accent with a dialect coach. “I asked Francis to bring one in because I wanted it to sound authentic. There are different accents – from Keighley [where the film is set] to somewhere four miles up the road, in Bingley. I wanted it to be so legit. We got interviews from people in the area, and found those sounds. “In the three weeks leading up to the shoot, I went to the Asda in Keighley and I asked a woman [O’Connor slips into the accent] ‘Where do I find the cheese strings?’ And then she went ‘You’re not from round here’. And I went ‘Oh shit!’ She added ‘You’re from Bingley!’ I thought ‘Not bad!’ It was a big process.” (independent.co.uk)
About Cinematographer Joshua James Richards
Joshua James Richards is a two-time Film Independent Spirit Award nominee, who’s cinematography credits include Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Winner “The Rider” and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” for which he also won Best Debut Cinematography at the Camerimage Festival. Richards was nominated for a Critics Circle Award for best technical achievement for his second feature, BAFTA nominated “God’s Own Country.” Richards achieved his BA at Bournemouth University Film and Television School for Film and creative writing, before receiving his MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he studied Directing. Richards has shot a wide range of commercials and music videos, collaborating with directors around the world. His work has screened at festivals worldwide including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, Berlin, New Directors New Films, Telluride, and exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and MOMA PS1 in NYC. (filmindependent.org)
About Writer and Director Francis Lee
Francis’ first feature film, God’s Own Country, was developed and funded by BFI and Creative England and premiered at Sundance 2017 where he won Best Director. God’s Own Country went on to theatrical distribution world wide winning many awards including Best Film, Best Debut Screenwriter, Best Actor British Independent Film Awards 2017, Best Film, Best Actor Empire Magazine Awards 2017, Best Film Evening Standard Film Awards, Michael Powell Award for Best British Film 2017, Breakthrough British Filmmaker of the Year London Critics Circle Film Awards 2017 and a nomination for the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film 2017. God’s Own Country was the most successful British debut film, both critically and box office, for 2017. Francis was brought up on his parents’ farm on the Pennine Hills in Yorkshire. After an acting career and unable to afford film school, Francis self-financed three short films – The Farmer’s Wife, Bradford Halifax London, The Last Smallholder – which he wrote and directed. All three films went onto screen at international film festivals winning many awards. Following the huge critical and box office success of God’s Own Country, Francis’ second feature film, Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, funded by BBC Films and BFI, was selected in Official Competition at Cannes 2020, Telluride Film Festival 2020 and premiered at Toronto International Film Festival 2020 before its worldwide release in 2020/21. Francis was a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit in 2017. (knighthallagency.com)