I will hold my hand up from the start and say I live near where they filmed this, a story which is as much about emotions as it is about farming and the harsh beauty of the Yorkshire landscape.
So, personal Yorkshire girl interest aside, this is still a masterful piece of storytelling which accurately portrays the vast bleak landscapes of West Yorkshire which are so intrinsically linked with the agricultural heritage which created them – the dry stone walls, the crumbled sheepherder’s cottages, the farms which are desperately fighting to stay viable.
Farmers, and hill farmers in particular, don’t swan around in brand new Range Rovers and speak with plummy accents, they’re (and yes, I speak from experience as both an agricultural journalist and a rural affairs specialist reporter in the Yorkshire Dales for almost 20 years) invariably hard working, down to Earth people who are doing their best to keep alive a tradition which has shaped the landscape for millennia.
In the Saxby’s Francis Lee drew not only on his own experiences growing up on a working farm in West Yorkshire, but he accurately depicts the brutal realities of daily life battling the elements in a part of the country which – while on the doorstep of the big cities – is still isolated and isolating.
Johnny’s brief emotionless encounters at the auction mart and in the toilets of a pub are his only break from a life in which he has only his Nan and his disabled father as a constant presence.
When Gheorghe, an itinerant Romanian farm worker arrives to help with the lambing season, Johnny is resentful and bitter, thinking all his efforts to keep the farm operating are going unrecognised.
Their first encounters are silent, fraught with tension and eventually explode into a sexual lustful exchange born out of loneliness and frustration.
But, as with the landscape which slowly reveals its beauty, so does this relationship change and, under the direction of Lee, the camera shows Johnny opening up as much as the vista does. It’s a glorious film and thoroughly deserving of all the praise it has been receiving.
The acting all round is first rate, helmed as this is by a cast of four really – the superb Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu bring to life the two contrasting men at the heart of the narrative.
Gemma Jones excels in a role which sees her forsaking her usual “upper class” parts to provide a constant presence of the stoic Yorkshire woman on whose shoulders most of these farms rest while Ian Hart is almost unrecognisable as the closed off farmer coping with the after effects of a stroke, long abandoned by Johnny’s mother and incapable of communicating with his son other than through orders.
God’s Own Country, as the county is so fondly referred to by us natives, has been – I think unfairly – compared to Brokeback Mountain. Unfairly, imho, because livestock elements notwithstanding, the relationship at the centre of each film is quite different. Johnny and Gheorghe aren’t in the closet, hiding their sexuality from wives and friends, even if they’re not openly gay, and there is no conflict other than the pressures of trying to run a farm in the wilds of West Yorkshire.
The same narrative would have worked irrespective of the sexuality of the two leads, it was about an emotional awakening and a rediscovery of the love of farming and landscape which had begun to feel alienating.
It stands in its own right as a piece of beautiful writing and exquisite cinematography.