‘God’s Own Country’ is traditionally a term used to describe the vast, open, scenic landscapes that mold the county of Yorkshire’s unspoiled countryside. But, Francis Lee’s directorial debut, ‘God’s Own Country’ (2017), focuses less on the poetic beauty of the landscapes. It uncovers and reworks the expression to draw attention to the lands people, who often go unnoticed in mainstream media. What accompanies the land in ‘God’s Own Country’ are the sensations of isolation and solitude that are felt by, and have become an integral part of the film’s protagonist, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young, gay farmer.
The way Johnny’s profession intertwines with his environment and his lifestyle are what bring the themes of isolation and solitude to the forefront of ‘God’s Own Country’. Johnny is left with no real agency as he is faced with an ultimatum to stay on-board with the family profession of farming, because of his father, Martin, (Ian Hart) suffering from a stroke. Since this incident, Johnny becomes more dependable for maintaining the operations of the farm. Neither his ill father, or aging grandmother, Deidrie, (Gemma Jones) no longer possess the physical means to do so without Johnny’s aid.
Johnny is faced with a profession that contributes to many of the resentments and attitudes that he possesses and develops. They form as part of Johnny’s circumstances due to his social status, and him looking outward, yet shielding away from life, as he appears to have a future awaiting him that holds no prospects. But, Johnny struggles to balance the workload alone, as he engages in resolutions that provides an illusion of comfort through binge-drinking and casual sex. Because of Johnny’s disregarding attitude towards the farm and the world, Johnny’s father hires a Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), to help Johnny through the lambing season, who eventually helps spark a transformation in Johnny’s character, and the way in which the farm is run.
The opening shot of ‘Gods Own Country’ provides an illustrative example of a traditional Yorkshire farmhouse. Immediately, the rural, and isolated environment that surrounds Johnny in the early hours of the morning, and follows him throughout the course of his day-to-day life is captured. Johnny, for the first time, is not only seen throwing up, which alludes towards his unhealthy relationship with alcohol which can act as a coping mechanism, he also looks rough, winded and drained. From Johnny’s physical appearance, it can be clear that this lifestyle stems from him taking on the gruelling task of getting up at the same time every day. He is stuck in the same routine, getting straight out of the door as this is what is expected of him. When challenged about his drinking habits by his father, Johnny remarks that there is nothing else to do in the area. As he defends drinking as part of his choice, Johnny has sadly fallen down a path of thinking this is mainly a resolution, as he cannot coexist outside of his work, yet cannot fully commit to it.
It becomes easy to see how Johnny can feel isolated. The maintenance of the farm is primarily of his doing, and Johnny is alone in completing these tasks, when he can eventually get around to conducting them. With Johnny’s main point of human contact being his father and grandmother, who are not always approving of him and his actions, it becomes easy to assess how Johnny further stands out from his surroundings. Johnny stand outs not only in his profession, but in his community, a sensation that becomes noticeably visible when Johnny is at a cattle auction, and the room is filled with old, white men. This pairing can act as a factor that contributes towards Johnny’s solitude. It links back to a wider decision where individuals can have their say in choosing to stay on to work at a family farm, or go to pursuit a passion, a decision which appeared to be neither a dilemma or choice for Johnny.
When the opportunity arises, Johnny can also be seen to prevent himself from forging his own connections with those possessing a similar identity to him within his community. This is due to him adopting a callous appearance and nature. As Johnny engages in casual sex at his local auction mart, Johnny is nearly kissed, and retreats from this advancement hastily. He turns the experience straight into sex. Johnny provides no intimacy, or regard for his counterpart other than them meeting the desire for physical contact, a sensation that is withdrawn from Johnny as part of a complex cycle. For Johnny, amongst drinking, sexual experiences can also offer a physical release for the character, in which he exerts his daily frustrations in a different, free environment, by misusing sex, a passionate act. By being grounded in suppressed feelings and attitudes towards intimacy and sex, Johnny unknowingly places himself in a disadvantage when it comes to intimacy and forging connections with others. This becomes highlighted once Johnny is later asked if he would like to go for a drink sometime. He immediately shuts the approach down, again in disregard for anyone but himself, proving that he has grown accustomed to a life of isolation, despite him being dissatisfied with his circumstances and struggling to pursuit opportunities where he can better himself.
The development of how Johnny has found himself situated at a point where he is lonely and frustrated with the world can best be attributed to when Johnny has an encounter with an old friend. This encounter is a pivotal moment for understanding how Johnny deals with his situation and experiences. Johnny embarks on what is likely to be a daily ritual of attending the local pub, a place where he can often be seen drinking, alone, due to his lack of connections, and is caught off-guard once he is spotted. As Johnny is asked about his father’s condition, this question serves of yet another reminder about his stakes. Johnny is cornered, with constant pressures on him to ensure the smooth running of the farm, which Johnny struggles to contend with. Each day, it seems that there are only factors that can add to his frustrations.
But, the exchange between the two characters soon becomes bitter. Johnny regards how he thought that once people gained the opportunity to attend university, especially if from a working-class background, they would have no need to return home. From this viewpoint, it is as though university allows individuals to craft a life outside of home for themselves and gain independence. This could have well been a possibility for Johnny at one point, and now, it feels like another reason to feel defeated. With university, or another job never seeming like a possibility for Johnny, as he cannot possess a role outside of the farm, it is reasonable to believe that he feels the chance to attend university should not be wasted. Especially, when his beliefs to his home are so rooted in distain, and he struggles to craft a personal life for himself inside it.
Johnny feels trapped inside his landscape and does not see a world outside of it, only his working circumstances and responsibilities. Johnny may have been previously possessed a different view towards the world, and been a more positive, excitable character, but, as Johnny states, he had to change this. He had no real choice in doing so. From Johnny’s eyes, he sees other leave the land behind. If they come back, it could only be to reassure them that the lives of those from where they originate do not have enough depth than those who are from a city, or less rural areas. Johnny, seeing his former friend return home with her new friends, only sees this from a position where him and everyone else in the community have come to be gawked at for the supposed simplicity of their lives, and observed as different beings. These become feelings that can only add towards Johnny’s sense of solitude from the rest of the world. He sees himself in a position where he only has one duty, and that is to earn a living, despite him being in a position where he does not have much to live for.
However, the arrival of Gheorghe in Johnny’s life stimulates a shift in Johnny’s character that does not seem previously possible. This possibility is due to Johnny making a connection with someone outside of the world he knows, and is familiar with, due to a hopeful encounter. Despite when the two initially meet, and Johnny instantaneously asks Gheorghe where he is from, dehumanising him through a series of racial slurs as Johnny is from a place where the scrutiny of difference translates from ethnocentrism, ‘God’s Own Country’ insists on not making this possibility seem scarce, and another lost connection for Johnny. As the film progresses, and starts to display a slow, burning change of tone that opens the Yorkshire countryside to wider possibilities, Johnny undergoes his own personal transformation because of Gheorghe’s maturity and kindness. Johnny eventually develops an understanding of how a life aside from solitude can exist outside of his previous emotional and physical outlets, as he is eventually shown a tender love.
Transitioning from the masked appearance ‘God’s Own Country’ has as a dark, morbidly toned film, Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship now takes centre-stage. With this development, ‘God’s Own Country’ starts to revolve around the unlikely relationship between the pair and their growing mutual fondness for one another. The fragile, wider issues that lay below the surface of the films content begin to blossom. ‘God’s Own Country’ almost starts afresh as it deepens its meaning, and begins to reflect a different condition to human nature outside of how we can feel closed off and shut down due to our environments.
Instead, ‘God’s Own Country’ opens to emphasise with the many ways, whether healthy or not, that human beings try to manage. With Gheorghe’s tender presence, Johnny has no choice but to face his issues of intimacy and accepting vulnerability, which he could shy away from so easily before. And, in doing so, Johnny can defy what is expected of him in terms of masculinity. Through embracing these qualities, even with some difficulty, Johnny can finally connect due to a new lease of life and changing perceptions. Johnny, as he faces his hard exterior, can realise that accepting help is not a weakness, or a problem. And, with help on his side, he can now retreat from a barrier of hostility, and gently attempt to allow himself to become a better person. Johnny not only becomes connected to the world on an emotional level, but physically, too. He discovers love and a connection in an environment where this seemed scarce and unimaginable.
Although initially presented as a contrasting pair, the open mind that Gheorghe possess can eventually be seen in Johnny too, as he leaves his closed mind behind. After Gheorghe shows Johnny that there can be other ways of doing things outside of the way Johnny operates at, Johnny begins to adopt Gheorghe’s way of thinking. A lamb that Johnny initially sees as a runt, is quite the opposite of that to Gheorghe. Instead, Gheorghe takes on the task of personally caring for the lamb, proving that there can be more to the attitude that Johnny displays towards livestock. As Gheorghe begins to care for the lamb that would have been left to die or disposed of, Johnny is forced to evaluate how he thinks and carries out his actions. Gheorghe almost begins to act as a role model for Johnny that he can look up to, due to the hopeful attitude that he embodies. Gheorghe stands up to Johnny, and ultimately challenges him and his beliefs and attitudes. In doing so, Johnny finds the agencies to be able to revaluate his position. He falls more in touch with himself as Gheorghe’s defence of himself, and his beliefs, begin to change Johnny.
Even though he may appear as an outsider to Johnny’s world, Gheorghe still showers the land and Johnny with compassion and understanding. In an instance where Johnny injures himself, Johnny initially rejects Gheorghe’s help. But, as Gheorghe persists, and exerts his knowledge and experiences in situations onto Johnny, he demands that Johnny accepts his help to fight a potential infection. In this situation, it becomes possible for Johnny to observe and learn from Gheorghe. Not only has Gheorghe cared for a lamb, he has persisted in helping someone who has shown him nothing but resentment. The basis of these simple, kind, exchanges are what allow Johnny to see through re-establishing a connection to not only others, but where he is from and what he is doing.
Combatting Johnny’s attitudes towards sex and intimacy are also resulted in his newfound connection to Gheorghe. They become transformed due to Gheorghe negotiating how Johnny embraces these opportunities. In their sexual encounters, Johnny is still pursued with a kiss, to his dismay as sex normally takes priority. However, due to his relationship with Gheorghe, Johnny is seen for the first time to be providing someone with a sexual act. Johnny later becomes more open to discuss and console in intimacy and trust, as opposed to before. Although the sexual exchanges they share act as a gateway into the bond that the two grow to share, Johnny is no longer keeping a cold distance. This becomes another attribute in the transformation of attitudes and beliefs inside of Johnny, as he is shown companionship, and allows himself to grow close to someone from being touched with care for the first time.
Johnny becomes less withdrawn from the world, and more playful and awake. He begins to transfer his newfound feelings into his relationships with those around him. As he grows closer to Gheorghe, he can begin to realise that he is not alone, and the two share a lot of common ground despite them appearing a whole world apart. Gheorghe, also from a similar background to Johnny, understands Johnny frustrations and feelings, as he emphasises the experience they share as beautiful, but lonely. Gheorghe resonates with Johnny further, by stating that his country, Romania is dead, due to its lack of prospects. And, for Johnny, this is what his position in Yorkshire can feel like too.
But, aside from the shared melancholy, and fears for the future, ‘Gods Own Country’ shows what can be transformed when you are not only in touch with yourself, but everyone else who is around you, and beyond, by taking transformative actions. These can become hopeful, and inspire a positive change in yourself and those in your life. They can lead to finding happiness, and become demonstrated through Johnny being able to run and transform the farm with Gheorghe, whilst being able to keep their love for one another. Through forging a meaningful connection, Johnny is shown what a relationship can be, and it can be as simple as simple as someone helping you cook and eat better, sharing a bath or exchanging language. A future between the two seems more than possible to maintain once Johnny overcomes his fears of intimacy and vulnerability, and no longer must hide from commitment, returning to his own ways where he can reverse all the progress he has made.
Due to Johnny’s connection with Gheorghe, he is eventually able to realise the error of his ways. Johnny begins to understand that he cannot manage and continue to live the way he has been doing so, and expresses this through anger and frustration directed at himself. On his journey, he has managed to transform from dwelling in isolation with comforts that further his solitude and distaste for the world, to move from hating life, to appreciating it and its wider connections. Importantly, Johnny’s journey speaks to how it is easy to hate what we know, and what we take for granted in the environments where we have grown up. Johnny does not have to live up to the expectation of having to escape working-class life, because as he unites with his landscape and those inside of it alongside him, he can embrace life and enjoy his identity.
‘God’s Own Country’ reminds us of the complexities surrounding what it can mean to be human. It is a testament to how we should remain open to consider and gain an understanding of the identities that make up our world, whether they are familiar to us or not. In a broader sense, ‘God’s Own Country’ shows what is possible once resentment becomes displaced. Resentment is difficult to overcome, but once it can be learned from and conquered, like many of life’s hardships, there can be a world of beauty that awaits, and an impending freedom.