Toughness and tenderness duke it out to the bittersweet end of "God's Own Country," a transporting, wrenchingly acted love story set in the windswept wilds of northern England.
Since it screened this year at the Sundance Film Festival, this first feature from writer-director Francis Lee has drawn frequent comparisons to "Brokeback Mountain," for reasons understandable and misleading. Ang Lee's 2005 triumph may be an overused gay-cinema reference point, but "God's Own Country" does have more in common with that film than merely a director's surname and a tale of two shepherds.
While Francis Lee's film is less epic, more economical in scale and appreciably franker in its depiction of sexuality, the two movies share a raw, explosive physicality, an understanding that the laws of attraction can feel as disruptive and undeniable as nature itself.
One crucial difference is that the new movie is set in the present day. Even in English farm country, where years of tradition and conservatism hold sway, the love that once dared not speak its name can now at least murmur it on occasion.
The movie tracks the aching bond that develops between two young men — one a Yorkshire lad who's toiled on his family farm his whole life, the other a Romanian migrant looking for little more than a place to work and rest his head.
One of the satisfactions of the film is that the possibility of exposure and persecution never becomes the real threat to the union. It's the question of whether their devotion to each other can survive the relentless ebb and flow of their tough, hardscrabble lives, the only lives they've ever known.
That question is answered with a sigh, a shrug and a pinch of old-fashioned Hollywood optimism that feels all the more affecting in these earthy, downbeat environs. Lee's depiction of farm life, rich in quotidian detail, can only have gained in grit and conviction from his own West Yorkshire upbringing.
Life isn't easy on this rugged landscape, but sometimes, Lee suggests, it can be kind enough to bring the right people together, even under circumstances that could hardly seem less ideal, let alone romantic.
When we first meet the loutish 24-year-old Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor), he's hunched over a toilet, emptying the contents of his stomach after another long night at the pub. The next morning he's back at work in body if not in spirit, wearily building a fence, taking a cow to auction and then impulsively picking up a young man with whom he steals a few moments in the privacy of a cattle trailer.
"Want to get a pint?" the other man asks afterward. "No," Johnny grunts, bewildered. Sex, like everything else in his life, is something to be achieved with as little conversation or eye contact as possible. Johnny's rough, but he isn't angry or disaffected. He's simply been worn down by a life of ceaseless labor and few other options, one that has taken a similar toll on his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and his father, Martin (Ian Hart), who is too physically weak at this point to do much more than chide and bark orders.
In need of help during the busy lambing season, the Saxbys hire Gheorghe (Romanian actor Alec Secareanu), a strikingly handsome 27-year-old laborer with a dark goatee, soft eyes and, despite his distant roots, a preternatural kinship with his surroundings. When the two young men camp out on the moors for several nights, Johnny's rude indifference gradually subsides as he notices Gheorghe's instinctive connection with everything around him.
Before long the two men fall into their own passionate communion, and here, too, the older one has much to impart to the younger. Gheorghe begins to temper the violence inherent in Johnny's lust.
By the time the two head back down the mountain, an emotional bond has formed, albeit one that can flourish in secret for only so long.
The film rests quite assuredly on its young leads' shoulders. In the push-pull between Secareanu's resonant stillness and O'Connor's barely sublimated intensity, you feel the struggle of two souls forging a path toward each other, gradually realizing that while life may be harsh and unforgiving, love doesn't have to be.
God’s Own Country
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: Not rated but includes sex, nudity and profanity.