God’s Own Country, written and directed by English filmmaker Francis Lee, is a remarkable film in many ways, and I’m not alone in believing it’s quite probably the best debut of the year.
This tough, festival-conquering film boasts an extraordinarily detailed, fearlessly-honed and precise script which tells the story of an emotionally repressed young farmer, Johnny Saxby, working cheerlessly and relentlessly on his disabled dad’s farm in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He is only able to find relief in meaningless, brutal sex with other boys and drinking himself into oblivion. He falteringly begins to let love into his life, though, when handsome young Romanian, Gheorghe, arrives to work on the farm.
There are startlingly good performances from Josh O’Connor as Johnny Saxby and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe, as well as from Ian Hart as his bitter dad and Gemma Jones as the flinty grandmother. But another starring role in the film is taken by the landscape of the West Yorkshire moors, where the film was shot last year.
“Yorkshire has always been home to me,” says 47-year-old Lee, who was brought up there on a sheep farm where his dad still works. “Its landscape formed me both emotionally and physically, and although I ‘escaped’ to London when I was 20 to train as an actor, it’s a place I’ve never been able to get out from underneath my flesh.”
That’s an appropriately visceral phrase for an unflinching film where beauty is fleeting and sometimes unseen, but is as much a part of everyday life as the harsh and unforgiving slog of farming.
“When I decided to quit acting and start making films about five years ago, it felt like the most rich and emotive place to set my work and the most natural place on Earth to set my first feature film. So, the thought of being back, close to my family and living on the remote hills of west Yorkshire really excited me. God’s Own Country isn’t autobiographical but my experiences did inform the story and characters.”
Although Lee experienced the usual confidence-sapping setbacks and delays familiar to any new (and indeed many veteran) film-makers, he points out that any interruption was as much due to his determination to protect the integrity of his film by shooting it chronologically, an unusual practice these days, as it was to any industry shenanigans.
“I’ve only been making film for five years and I wrote this in 2013. The reason it took the time it did to make really has less to do with the business side of it than it does with me waiting for things. When I got the funding from the BFI in late May 2015, for example, I then had to wait for lambing, and that was in March and April of 2016. So, you see, there’s a year there that goes. I did lots of work on the script and other sorts of preparation but I couldn’t go quicker than that. So, in terms of the process, and the bigger picture of how film is made, that was quite a quick turnaround.
“You’re absolutely right, though, that it was very important to me that it was filmed in sequence. I felt that this film was very much about this relationship and these scenes felt like building blocks, that one informed the next. I wanted to help that process by not having the actors really get to know each other too well before they actually get to meet on screen. They’d spent a little bit of time together but not much, because I wanted to save that extra layer of nervousness, that anticipation, that they would be bringing not just as characters but as actors.
“It also meant, and this was really as important to me, that we could get that slight shift of seasons when we were shooting, from the end of Winter to the beginning of Spring. I wanted to get that subtle light shift and those green buds starting to come out which felt, again, like another layer that could mirror the relationship. We could see and feel that Spring is coming, with renewal, new hope and lightness. All of these things would play into working chronologically.
“The structure of the script remained the same throughout but I was trying to pin down what this was about, and getting rid of dialogue. I like cinema because it’s a visual medium and that’s how you tell your stories. So, we went into this shoot with not much dialogue and then, because the boys were so incredible, were able to strip even more dialogue out in the edit.”
Lee also made “the boys” toil properly for a couple of weeks on real working farms, including his dad’s, so that they actually knew how to work with and be comfortable around potentially unpredictable animals. They even learned how to skin lambs for one crucial scene.
“I love authenticity and truth. I never wanted a hand double or a stunt double, I wanted the boys to do everything. Therefore, they had to learn it. We were lucky because the people who worked with us on the film were my dad and his friends, Yorkshire farmers who know their livestock incredibly well, and know the best way to handle and move them.”
Lee admits that the film’s enormous success at the Sundance film festival – and since – has come as a bit of a surprise.
“We didn’t even think about how it would be received when we shot it. We were very much a unit, blinkered in a healthy way but thinking only about the process and telling the story. It never occurred to me to wonder how people might respond and it was accepted at Sundance on the basis of a rough cut. So as soon as I finished it, I was actually on a plane to Sundance, with no down-time to be reflective. It did incredibly well there and that just catapulted us forward. It was extraordinary and we all found it quite overwhelming, even alien, to begin with.”
But he’s sanguine about the endless, and in my view lazy, critical comparisons with Brokeback Mountain.
“What an honour to be compared to a masterpiece in terms of storytelling and performance,” he graciously observes. “But I do think they are very different films. Brokeback Mountain is set in a very different world and at a time where those two characters can’t be together. They’re forced to live lies and it all ends tragically. Whereas in God’s Own Country, there is no restriction in terms of prejudice towards the two boys, it’s much more to do with a boy who cannot connect to himself emotionally and accept or give love. Obviously, the ending is very different and I don’t think my film is issue-based. It’s much more about love.”
God’s Own Country is on general release. To watch the trailer, click here.