Thursday 14 September 2017

Spring awakening: "God's Own Country"

First The Levelling, now God's Own Country: thus do our indie filmmakers reconnect with the soil. Farmland at the very least presents as a marked change of terrain from the country estates that have come to dominate recent British TV and cinema, both in terms of what it offers the eye and in what it signifies. Here are places where there isn't much money, and what little there is has to be worked bloody hard for. Truly and unmistakably, we find ourselves at the margins. (No wonder independent producers and directors feel so at home in the vicinity.) Francis Lee's assured first feature, charting the uphill-down dale relationship between two Yorkshire farmhands, has been dubbed "the British Brokeback" in certain quarters, understandable marketing shorthand that nevertheless feels a shade lazy and inaccurate. For one thing, it ignores the fact that this Lee film is entirely contemporary in its concerns, very much engaged with the hardscrabble realities of austerity Britain; for another, the phrase comprehensively overwrites the film's regional specificity.

Protagonist Johnny (Josh O'Connor) is, after all, a picture of that gruff self-sufficiency sometimes observed in certain Northern men: a twentysomething left behind to fix up his ailing father's farm while his contemporaries fled to college and upward mobility, he pisses away what little leisure time he's granted drinking to eruptive excess, engaging in what looks like fairly joyless casual sex, and generally cursing his position in life. He could be a 21st century update of the Angry Young Man archetype, if he were inclined to put more than two mardy-arsed words together, and didn't have to get up at four in the morning to stick a hand up a pregnant cow's backside. (The old Christopher Timothy manoeuvre, deployed by filmmakers keen to demonstrate they're not just here as tourists.) He looks to have resigned himself to his fate when there arrives a hired hand from Romania, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Any illusions the newcomer may have about arriving in the promised land are soon shattered: Johnny labels him "Gypsy" and his ramshackle caravan digs a "shitehole". Still, at least he's talking. Gheorghe gives Johnny somebody to share his burdens and Pot Noodles with, and - eventually - a warm body to wake up alongside. Lonely goatherd, no more.

In turning one into two, Lee is consciously going against that strain of rural miserablism earlier indie kids like Duane Hopkins pursued into a critical and commercial dead end. The director evidently adores this landscape - his inserts of birds and beetles at large are collector's items - and while he's mindful of the gruelling labour that so frustrates Johnny (and has all but crippled his father), he's equally alert to the light and space that open up whenever we emerge from the darkened barns and take a few steps back. It won't hurt his cause that the bulk of the film's activity coincides with lambing season, allowing a small menagerie of cute fluffy creatures to inhabit the frame beyond the sometimes rough and bristly manlove. (This may be one reason why the film expanded into the multiplexes upon its second weekend on release, where Hopkins is currently pondering his future.) What's most notable, though, is how Lee frames his men. When Johnny and Gheorghe first go at one another, in the first light of dawn, it's redolent less of a roll in the hay - or, indeed, Theresa May running through golden wheatfields - than of pigs in muck: high on a hillside overlooking a town slowly waking up, it's a secret love, yes, but also filthily transcendent, placing them and us midway between the mire and the firmament. From somewhere in those heavens, you can hear Wilde and D.H. Lawrence applauding.

What follows could be described as a spring awakening of sorts - Johnny finally opening up to the idea of keeping somebody around to care for him as he does for his animals - yet even here the romantic in Lee is modulated by Lee the realist, nudging the affair along via the simplest of gestures. It's deeply touching, for example, when Johnny returns home from his daily labours to find the farmhouse table laid with a clutch of daffodils and two cans of economy lager: the look on O'Connor's face is enough to suggest this is the first time anybody has gone out of their way so for Johnny, no matter that the deviation in question probably involved no more than popping up to the Lidl by the roundabout. At this particular moment, it's obviously pointed that it should be a foreigner (and not just some common-or-garden labourer) who expands Johnny's horizons, yet Gheorghe's presence is crucial to how Lee proceeds from penning his protagonist in to giving him the run of the country. By the final reel, it feels as though these two could go anywhere and do anything - which may, ultimately, be the strength that finding a soulmate bestows upon us.

Throughout, Lee works as hard with his small cast as his characters are seen to do upon the land. He spots, for one, how Secareanu presents as by far the older and worldlier of his two leads, which makes Gheorghe seem wise enough to know when he's needed, and likewise to walk away when he's not. Set beside him, O'Connor appears vaguely calf-like, which is useful for a character so obviously struggling to stand on his own two feet, yet our hearts go out to Johnny precisely because of this dependency: no hugs look to be forthcoming from his pa (Ian Hart) or grandma (Gemma Jones), avatars of no-nonsense, keep-it-all-in Yorkshire common sense. Lee refuses to make the older generations simple tyrants, instead spreading his affections as Johnny does muck, and seeing what grows from it: a late, tentative rapprochement between stroke-afflicted father and son is all the more moving for Hart's typically skilful sketch of a man who's always found it hard to express himself at the best of times. Such sincerity elevates God's Own Country some distance over the majority of British films released this year: if at first its title appears nothing but ironic - shitehole, indeed - it comes by the closing credits to seem an apt description for a place of miracles and wonders, love selfless and true being foremost among them.

God's Own Country is now showing in selected cinemas. 

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