Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is a young man working perfunctorily on his family’s farm. His father is too ill to run the farm himself, and his grandmother is too old. He clearly wishes to be elsewhere, and this mode of self-denial spills over into his social life, in which he engages in fast and passionless sex with strangers, and indulges a nightly routine of binge drinking. To help him with the workload of the farm, Johnny’s family hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant. Despite initial hostility, including the hurling of racial abuse, a bond between them forms, which strengthens into something more profound.
Francis Lee’s film boasts performances of unanimous brilliance. Johnny is abrasive and self-centered, exactly as you would be if you were trapped in circumstances unsympathetic to your interior life. The animosity between the generations of Saxbys is portrayed with complete believability; it hinges on what remains unsaid between Johnny, his father (a brilliant Ian Hart), and his grandmother (a very subtle Gemma Jones). My only complaint in this regard is that Gheorghe, who is crucial to the film’s story, is not characterised as fully as he should be.
The cinematography by Joshua James Richards contains special figurative qualities. It would be easy to romanticise the terrain, but instead it is allowed to mirror Johnny’s life. We are shown all of the landscape’s tactile harshness: incessant wind; violent cold; broken boundary walls with razor-sharp rocks; the muck and the putrescence. But all of this is made bearable by the sight of a healthy, bleating newborn lamb being licked on the neck by its mother. Such tenderness coexists with the tougher realities of life, as it begins to with Johnny as his and Gheorghe’s relationship progresses.
God’s Own Country, which opened this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, shares with Lynne Ramsay’s astonishing debut Ratcatcher (1999) an exquisite eye for a certain kind of misery. It’s not a cynical or fashionable presentation; it’s a profound one, predicated on what characters’ inner and outer lives lack. It’s a substantially moving achievement.
Image: Dales Productions Limited/The Brit