God’s Own Country opens with a bleak landscape; a reluctant dawn illuminating a grey and isolated world, the wind whistling without pause, and the sound of protagonist Johnny (Josh O’Connor) retching after one too many the night before. It’s an inexpressibly sad and hollow scene. Johnny’s world, limited on the family sheep farm that he runs under the watchful and judgemental eyes of his ailing father and grandmother, feels empty. He’s quiet and put-upon by his family, and his lack of retort or response to them demonstrates his dearth of self-esteem. He runs on autopilot, participating in fleeting sexual encounters to which he denies the possibility of any fruition, and he drinks himself senseless at any opportunity he gets, that is until a new farmhand from Romania, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), opens up a world of possibilities to him.
Perhaps one of the strengths of God’s Own Country is how the film takes a non-stereotypical look at gay relationships. In fact, at times it feels as if the film’s gay romance is merely incidental as it contends with far bigger pressures in Johnny’s and Gheorghe’s lives. The treatment of migrants in the UK is perhaps most at the forefront, and as Gheorghe resolutely deals with poor living and working conditions and discrimination, his calm and sympathetic nature is all the more prominent and admirable. As well as this, Johnny’s work as a farmer is presented to us realistically. The arduous work of farming life, often with little reward, is a reality for many and consequently, there is no glamour, no meet-cute, nor any of your typical romantic dates in the film. Instead, there is mud, dead livestock, and rather grim-looking food.
Surprisingly, rather than being a complication or something that incites trouble for the pair, their gay romance provides them with the perfect escape from their problems. There are no explicit confrontations about their sexuality or coming-out moments in the film, Johnny’s austere family have their suspicions but never directly discuss it. But in reality, the one who finds their gay relationship the most difficult to accept is Johnny himself. Even then though, Johnny is always confident with his sexuality. What we seem to see with Johnny instead, however, is a character who cannot assert himself, who lacks confidence, and struggles with emotional intimacy. Instead, it is his tendency towards self-denial and his inability to articulate his own needs and desires that holds the pair back. Yet through his relationship with Gheorghe, he learns and comes to terms with his identity, finally embracing it.
The film’s romance is both quiet and passionate, as Johnny and Gheorghe finally come together whilst camping in the wind-beaten Yorkshire Dales. After watching Gheorghe save a runt lamb, we see the spark light back up in Johnny’s eyes – not only does Gheorghe teach Johnny about romantic love, but he also teaches him to appreciate the Yorkshire landscape and the place that he calls home. Where Johnny’s life is devoid of wonder and intimacy, his relationship with Gheorghe offers something new. Their time together is intense and inspiring, and their relationship’s transformative capabilities are also reflected in the filming. From a progressively lighter colour palette to a richer script, more varied sets and outward-looking perspectives, the relationship broadens the world of these men and the world of the film.
God’s Own Country, for all its grimness and portrayals of hardship and poverty, is a remarkably (and unexpectedly) hopeful film. After the pair separate and have an awkward discussion towards the end of the film in which Gheorghe declares that he is ‘not the answer’, there is a moment as the viewer when you brace yourself for the worse. Heartbreak seems inevitable at this point: films like this do not tend to end happily. And yet by some miracle, the pair find the answer together, as they stroll back to the farmhouse, the gate swinging contentedly shut behind them. Through love, they come to accept themselves, each other, and their lives in the rural world they live in. It is this optimistic ending, after such gruelling hardship, that truly makes God’s Own Country a brilliant and rather unique film in the LGBTQ+ genre.