In many ways, the beauty of Francis Lee’s feature-length debut God’s Own Country lies in its simplicity. The plot centres around the inheritance of a farm and a connected romance that might scandalise some of the locals in the remote hills of the Yorkshire dales.
It’s the strong, earthy stuff that might easily have been lifted from the pages of a Victorian novel: a queer re-reading of Thomas Hardy, with a far less gloomy outlook. And ‘earthy’ is no casual description. The performers spend half their time sleeping rough, handling animals and otherwise getting stuck into the muck and dirt that represents farm work. We are shown aspects of animal husbandry that would more than distress strict vegans, with one particularly brutal scene involving a stillborn calf being put out of its misery with a bolt gun.
The same spirit of detached pragmatism is carried over to the initial sex scenes between Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu (the film’s romantic pairing) where a similarly raw look at human sexuality, of nature red in tooth and claw, is allowed to inform their early struggle for intimacy and understanding against a backdrop of deeply repressed emotion. The cast put in strong performances, and again, this is where the film’s simplicity is allowed to shine. There’s plenty of space in the story for O’Connor and Secareanu to do their work as actors: building scenes together where their interaction, often with minimal dialogue, tells its own psychological tale. Ian Hart, as O’Connor’s ill father, is also excellent: the hard truth that his body is failing him is not lost on a character used to assessing the vitality of animals for a living. Hart gives the character a well-wrought dimension of bruised pride and resentment.
What this amounts to, perhaps, is a ringing endorsement of actors making the transition from the screen or stage to the director’s chair. Lee spent most of the nineties and noughties as a jobbing actor in TV dramas and soaps. One notable film appearance was in Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy – working with that stalwart of British realist cinema who himself started out on the acting side of things (only briefly, when studying at RADA) before choosing to direct. Leigh and Lee know the value of seeing a film from the actor’s perspective first and foremost – of allowing the weight of a film to rest most heavily in the motivations and unspoken narratives that power good acting.
Although it seems unlikely that Lee went so far as to embrace the famously drawn-out workshopping approach that Leigh uses with his cast and story-development, his production notes speak of someone very eager to immerse his principle cast in the environment of his fiction. To get as close to the truth as possible in fleshing out the details of a story which – it should be said – is based somewhat on his own experiences of growing up on a farm. One of God’s Own Country’s closest predecessors, in this respect, might be Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur. It’s easy to forget, since Considine is currently winning praise for his break-out stage performance – starring in Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman – but his initial foray into directing was so well received that a directorial career might easily have been on the cards had he chosen to pursue it. (The film did well at Sundance, before picking up awards at the Baftas and elsewhere).
Like God’s Own Country, the film has autobiographical elements – with the lead character Joseph (excellently played by Peter Mullan) being somewhat based on Considine’s own father. But the most striking aspect is how, in his direction, he brought something of his own acting skill in portraying unease and menace to the film itself. Tyrannosaur is suffused with a palpably Considine atmosphere, without his starring in it. What is translated in the director’s work with the cast is more than just how the script might bear out – both Lee and Considine wrote as well as directing their debuts – it’s a wider sense of how their performances will join up with the overall atmosphere which is being aimed for.
What the two films have most in common is the desire to show something brutal but true and tender about an environment that is often filtered for our viewing: those smaller, more marginalised areas of England that are more easily represented in cliché than in detail. Tyrannosaur, in some ways, is the arthouse answer to an episode of Coronation Street with an overall story arch of domestic abuse – God’s Own Country is almost like a raw take on the provincial make-believe of Emmerdale Farm: parsing the more easily romanticised elements of ‘The North’ from the telling by letting the camera dwell on the things for which no time can be found in the visual grammar of soap television (a world which Lee knows only too well).
As small a detail as the knock-off pot noodle dinners which O’Connor and Secareanu’s characters share whilst camping in the far fields elevates God’s Own Country to a level of specificity in its observation that you can’t always take for granted at the cinema. As with the centrality of a charity shop to the story of Tyrannosaur – one gets the feeling that you’re entertaining a vision of life that you’ve walked through already, regardless of how otherwise alien to your everyday. It’s a form of realism – fleshed out by the skill of an actor-director who knows the hard slog of drilling down into the heart of a character – that really resonates.
Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is in UK cinemas nationwide from this Friday.