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When we first meet Johnny Saxby in Francis Lee’s breathtaking, emotionally redolent God’s Own Country (★★★★★), he’s violently retching up his previous night at the local pub, a scene, we soon learn, is all-too-familiar. “I’m not cleaning up your sick,” barks his steel-eyed grandmother, Diedre, as the glum 24-year-old starts his day of work on the family’s Yorkshire livestock farm. It’s not a glamorous life, and Johnny takes to his chores with a begrudging sullenness, constantly berated by his father Martin, incapacitated a few years back by a stroke. Everything rests on Johnny’s shoulders, like it or not. And he doesn’t like it.
Johnny’s anger is fueled by loneliness and regret. From his farm’s vast fields, he can see the lights of the town below. But he’s only part of it inasmuch as he can down a dozen or so pints. His friends have all moved away, to better things, leaving him trapped in a rural, mind-numbingly dull nightmare of sweeping manure, mending fences, and birthing lambs and calves.
His sexual encounters are confined to quick, coarse, decidedly unsafe spit fucks with a young, local auctioneer. After one such occasion, the boy asks if Johnny would like to get a beer sometime, an attempt to humanize an otherwise unappealing, feral sexual encounter, and Johnny merely scoffs. Johnny, of course, is an animal — instinctive, primal — waiting to be domesticated, waiting to be born.
The promise of rebirth arrives in the form of Gheorghe, a migrant Romanian worker hired by Martin to help with lambing season. Johnny is at first desultory to the swarthy young man, calling him a gypsy, but the attraction is evident. After the pair spend a few nights in a remote stone shelter, tending to the newborn lambs, a transformation occurs. Their first encounter is eruptive, messy, passionate, stark, but it soon gives way to something more, as Gheorghe literally teaches Johnny the meaning of tenderness, as well as the power of a first kiss.
The remainder of Lee’s movie follows very familiar tropes, but it does so in such a natural, beguiling way, you barely notice. Everything about God’s Own Country feels fresh, as if this were the first gay romance ever made. If it doesn’t put your heart in your throat, you’re likely dead.
Lee infuses his film with a grim and gritty authenticity. Where an estimable movie like Brokeback Mountain, with which God’s Own Country shares massively similar DNA, generated its emotions through poise and polish, Lee’s film aims for the jugular of true intimacy. It helps that there are no recognizable stars — apart from Ian Hart, magnificent as the stroke-addled Martin. The movie is as much about the brutal, punishing, often grisly life of farming as it is about two men finding romance. It’s about the realization that while we can be our own self-imposed islands, surrounded by resentment and anger, things are so much better when you have someone making you morning eggs and fresh goat’s milk cheese.
As Johnny and Gheorghe, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu are equally phenomenal, matching each other in both ferocity and a familiar, playful casualness. O’Connor is particularly good in conveying Johnny’s primordial nature, while Secareanu plays Gheorghe with steady, serene, knowing calm and compassion. The actors bring the authenticity of first love to the screen in a way that is exceedingly rare for any movie, Hollywood or otherwise.
God’s Own Country will open in D.C. in mid-November, but Reel Affirmations has it now, as their opening night centerpiece — and trust when I say there is no other place you want to be than in the Gala Theatre at 9 p.m. next Thursday, Oct. 19. God’s Own Country is the Beautiful Thing of today. Tender, heartbreaking, emotionally shattering and satisfying, it is the movie that (the admittedly great) Brokeback Mountain only wishes it could have been.
The Reel Affirmations film festival runs from Oct. 19 to Sunday, Oct. 22, at the Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW. God’s Own Country plays Thursday, Oct. 19, at 9 p.m. For a full lineup of films or to buy tickets, visit thedccenter.org/reelaffirmations.
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