A moving story of self-discovery on the Yorkshire Dales, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country isn’t your average LGBT+ romance, something the director is keen to reiterate when we sat with him earlier this year at – of all places – the Transilvania International Film Festival.
A love story between two sheep farmers, God’s Own Country speaks to a larger facet of rural British consciousness whilst evoking the feel of an epic romance divorced from time. It’s been labelled as Britain’s answer to Brokeback Mountain, a lazy comparison, but one Lee takes as a compliment. “I love Brokeback Mountain, it’s an incredible film. If my debut film is compared to Ang Lee when he’s halfway through his career and I’m here at the beginning of mine, that’s great, but I feel it’s an easy comparison to make. I get why people do it, but I think when they see the film they’ll see it’s very different.”
With any luck comparisons to Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning drama will introduce the film to a larger audience, yet it ultimately understates the brilliance of Lee’s depiction of life in rural Yorkshire, something the director is keen to underline. “I’m from that region of Yorkshire. I escaped when I was twenty and moved to London to train as an actor, but I was always obsessed with that landscape; I couldn’t get it out of my head. One of the reasons I wanted to make this film is because I hadn’t seen the Yorkshire I knew depicted on screen. I hadn’t seen the people I grew up with, or their way of life. I also hadn’t seen people in same sex relationships where it feels like they’re in good relationships. In Brokeback Mountain you’ve got these two characters who lead tragic lives because they can’t be together, but my film is far more hopeful.”
Lee’s vivid depiction of love, lust and lambing on the Dales follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor) a young man left to manage the family farm after a stroke leaves his father (Ian Hart) incapacitated. Constantly beating back an encroaching inner darkness, Johnny spends what little free time he has either indulging in casual sex with local men, or at the pub, where he routinely gets blind drunk. He refuses to make connections with anyone, that is until his grandmother hires Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu). At first he treats Gheorghe with suspicion, but soon the pair became engaged in a constantly changing, ever subtle dance, and it becomes clear Gheorghe might be able to help him with more than the mucking-out.
“The boys were so great,” Lee says when asked how he managed to create such an authentic relationship between O’Connor and Secăreanu. “I love detail. I’m fastidiously precise with details and layering. We started working together three months before the shoot and we built these characters from scratch; from the moment they’re born to the moment we meet them in the film. We worked everything out; who they were, where they went to school, who their families were, what they liked, what they didn’t like. We worked all of it out so when we got to the initial rehearsal period these characters were very much alive.”
Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship develops slowly, almost in pure silence against the naturally sparse and seductive landscape of the Dales. To help the actors attune themselves to their subtle transformation Lee shot the film chronologically. “I knew it would be quite painful for the crew moving constantly from interior scenes to exterior ones,” explains Lee whilst discussing the logistic difficulties of filming linearly. “However, I knew if we could get it right it would help the relationship between the two boys enormously. I saw these scenes as building blocks, with every scene impacting on the next one.”
The result is a beautiful depiction of the often-complicated process of falling in love, with the romance between the pair unravelling like the changing of the seasons; although in reality, the capricious Yorkshire weather brought its own challenges to the shoot. “I felt this relationship would feel more authentic if it was shot chronologically, but I also knew that the weather would be horrific, and very inconsistent.” Lee continues, “I knew we could contain it by shooting this way and by the end of it all spring would have sprung, and trees would be green, and you would see a progression from winter through to spring. That didn’t necessarily happen, and it was hard work, but I think it was worth it in the end.”
A collision between the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Dales and the eroding footprints of a once booming agricultural industry, other directors might have been tempting to bask in the haunting grandeur of the surrounding topography, but the intimate camera work of emerging cinematographer Joshua James Richards stays tight to Johnny and Gheorghe throughout. “When it came to shooting the film, I worked with Joshua on this idea of landscape. Every time we’d shoot a wide shot we would look at it and say it doesn’t feel right, we don’t like this. We wanted to experience this world through Johnny; we wanted his character close.”
The results is a version of the Yorkshire Dales that feels like it’s never been encountered before; yet at the same time feels like it’s been waiting to be captured, and to captivate all along. With Johnny such a laconic figure, it was important to Lee that he articulates Johnny’s sense of confinement through his connection to the land. “We worked out very quickly it was actually about seeing the geography’s effect on Johnny. I think there’s only one wide shot in the entire film but it feels like you’re in that landscape because you see the mud, you see the rain, it feels like you’re actually there but you don’t see the landscape, you see the effect.”
Although the landscape remains hidden from the viewer, it still informs much of Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship and the sexual tension bubbling between them erupts during a windswept lambing session in a remote corner of the farm. “We only shoot those scenes a couple of time.” Lee states when explaining the difficulties of choreographing the films graphic sex scenes in the rain and mud. “I’m not a huge fan of dialogue in films, I like to tell a story visually, so the sex scenes were important to tell the story of where Johnny is emotionally and how that changes.”
The film hangs almost entirely on O’Connor ability to wordless express his inner demons. Johnny is a hard drinking, foul-mouthed loner and O’Connor delivers a suitably volatile, yet controlled performance; something Lee humbly refuses to take the praise for. “I worked out very quickly this was a road Josh could go down. Now I know him really well; he’s this incredibly polite, funny, middle class boy from Cheltenham; lovely and giggly and very, very nice. But when I watch the film and see the character of Johnny, I’m shocked. He doesn’t look like Josh, he doesn’t sound like Josh, and he has none of the same emotional range as Josh. It’s an incredible performance, he’s such a transformative actor.”
The film will no doubt garner attention for its primal, verging on explicit, sex scenes and O’Connor’s commanding performance. However, the most striking element of Gods Own Country is Lee’s vivid depiction of farm work. Far from squeamish about the practical details of sheep farming, Lee clearly sees his story as one that cannot be separated from the realities of life on a working farm, and it led to some interesting rehearsal techniques. “I sent them off to work at local farms. Not to stand around and watch, but to do the shifts. They would get there at 6 in the morning and stay till 5. They were actually doing the work because I wanted it to feel very natural, like they knew what they were doing.”
The camera never shies away during graphic scenes of animal husbandry, even as hands and arms are observed entering livestock. However, Lee’s commitment to realism is best observed in a bittersweet sequence where Gheorghe skins a recently deceased lamb to make a fur-coat for the runt of the litter. “I knew from the start I never wanted a hand double or any fakery. So when you see Alec skinning a lamb, that’s Alec skinning a lamb. It was really important for me to represent this world truthfully.” It’s an unforgettable scene , one that embodies the raw, primal tenderness at the core of Lee’s remarkable debut; a beautiful film that strikes not just at the hardships of rural British life, but its innumerable pleasures, comforts and truths.
Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is in UK cinemas nationwide from this Friday.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble