Clearly indebted to the memory of “Brokeback Mountain” and its cautious handling of gay male love amidst sheep and lonely landscape, Francis Lee’s debut feature “God’s Own Country” is set on a Yorkshire farm much like the one he himself grew up on, and the camerawork seems in thrall to nature here above all else.
Our young protagonist Johnny (Josh O’Connor, “Florence Foster Jenkins”) is first seen vomiting in the early morning hours, the camera staying on his back as he does so. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) has suffered a stroke, and so the bulk of the farm work has fallen to Johnny, whose only way of blowing off steam is heavy drinking at local pubs.
Lee’s camera lingers on the lush countryside as Johnny goes about his work, tenderly caring for a heifer and then going to an auction to sell it. We see him urinating and spitting, and Johnny spits again before having rough sex in a restroom with a young blond boy (Harry Lister Smith, “Pan”) who has caught his eye.
The editing and pacing in this first section of “God’s Own Country” is promisingly fast and intuitive, and the sex scene between Johnny and the blond boy has a very erotic furtive feeling. Lee manages to get across that the blond boy isn’t quite sure he wants to go so far with Johnny but gives himself up anyway because he is looking for a date. When they are done and outside, though, Johnny callously rebuffs him.
Johnny meets with a young Romanian boy who has come to help out on the farm named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), and right away there is a power struggle between them. Johnny calls this boy “gypsy,” but Gheorghe stares Johnny down and firmly says, “Please don’t call me that.” Gheorghe’s mother taught English in Romania, and Gheorghe is intelligent and proud. And he starts sneaking looks at Johnny.
The mid-section of “God’s Own Country” is an extended and often silent courtship between Johnny and Gheorghe as they work on the farm together. Portraying this sort of thing on screen is a real tightrope walk — if you put one foot wrong, you can fall down into either silliness or careless voyeurism. There comes a point when Gheorghe takes his pants down to wash himself, and the camera is set back at a distance as Johnny tries not to react to this, but there aren’t enough silent in-between shots of Gheorghe’s face to show us what he is thinking so that the tension between him and Johnny can build and feel real to us.
Finally, Johnny and Gheorghe come together and their clothes come mostly off as they roll around in the mud. This is where “God’s Own Country” runs into a real problem: If you’re filming a sex scene, the best way to do it is to put the camera as close as possible to the two people involved so that we can feel the flush of excitement between them. Lee’s camera stays at a distance from his leads and, far worse, comes in for close shots mainly for glimpses of their bodies.
On the one hand, the sight of their mud-spattered pale white skin is visually striking. On the other, it feels like the camera is gawking at them rather than joining them, and so all semblance of reality and of the necessary awkwardness of getting their clothes off vanishes. And so too does any real eroticism. When Johnny pulled the blond boy’s pants down in back in the restroom, it was from his point of view so that we could share his excitement. When he has sex with Gheorghe, that subjective component is crucially absent.
“God’s Own Country” finally becomes a film about saliva and sheep and the very pretty long eyelashes on both Johnny and Gheorghe. There are far too many close-ups of Johnny where he is looking dazed and open-mouthed, and his relationship to his father and grandmother (Gemma Jones) is barely sketched.
“My country is dead,” Gheorghe tells Johnny at one point, and that hints that he is just treading water because his options at this point are so limited. Instead of making us feel that these boys are meant to be together, “God’s Own Country” unintentionally suggests that Gheorghe should get himself to a city where his silky dark hair, bedroom eyes and developed aesthetic sense might be far better appreciated by others.