God’s Own Country: The Realities of Repression

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

*** (out of 4)

In recent months, people have taken to calling Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country a “British Brokeback Mountain.” And in all honesty, it’s not hard to see why. Like Ennis del Mar, God’s protagonist, a 20-something-year-old named Johnny (Josh O’Connor), is a gay, emotionally repressed farmworker who has a deep-rooted aversion to conversation. Just as Ennis met and fell for Jack, moreover, Johnny eventually strikes up a relationship with Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who comes to work on the livestock farm run by Johnny and his parents (Ian Hart, Gemma Jones). And most significantly, both Brokeback and God’s take place in an environment where civilization is all but nonexistent: the former set Ennis and Jack’s story in the middle of Wyoming, while Johnny and Gheorghe’s romance unfolds against the hilly landscape of rural Yorkshire.

These surface similarities, however, belie the vast differences in form and approach that ultimately make God’s a more satisfying experience than Brokeback. For all its earnestness, after all, the latter didn’t do a very good job illustrating the toll that emotional repression took on its characters. You could easily see this problem in Heath Ledger’s performance as Ennis: the introversion he conveyed through his gestures clashed with the large amounts of dialogue the script forced down his throat. But the issues with Brokeback also had a lot to do with its style, which was largely defined by a fondness for images of idyllic landscapes, smooth tracking shots, and Gustavo Santaollala’s sentimental guitar score. Ang Lee’s depiction of Jack and Ennis’ relationship ably evoked an atmosphere of idealized romance, in other words – but as charming as said atmosphere was, it failed to capture the agony of a life in which you can only live off of “a couple of high-altitude f***s once or twice a year.” (To quote Jack Twist.)

Fortunately, God’s approaches the topic of emotional repression with a sensitivity that Brokeback largely lacks. Yes, the film does make liberal use of sweeping landscape shots. But thanks to the noticeable absence of background music and camera movement, they generally convey a sense of desolation; far from idealizing the countryside à la Ang Lee, said shots appropriately point towards the way rural life can often leave people feeling stifled and frustrated. Furthermore, instead of filling the film’s running time with dialogue, Francis Lee largely has Johnny and Gheorghe communicate through grunts and inaudible mutterings: whenever either one of them “talks,” you get the impression you’re watching someone who’s been rendered animalistic by a lifetime of social isolation.

The place where the discrepancies between God’s and Brokeback becomes most apparent, however, is in the way each of them sets up its sex scenes. Brokeback shot them in a manner (warm yellow lighting, sentimental music) that wouldn’t have been out of place in a conventional romance movie. But unlike Ang Lee, Francis Lee realizes that people who’ve suffered emotional repression all their lives are going to have great difficulty establishing a traditional, affection-based relationship. Several factors – the awkward, heavy sound of Johnny’s breathing; the harsh lighting; the violence in Johnny and Alec’s gestures; the stark contrast their bare white bodies form with the landscape around them – allow us to understand that their union is less a fulfilling fusion of like minds than an act of physical desperation, a venting of desires that have been gradually accumulated over the years. Francis Lee’s approach, in that sense, is far more attuned to the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of emotional repression than Ang Lee’s ever was.

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

All in all, then, God’s is not a mere “remake” of Brokeback; the former is simply a better movie in its own right. Unfortunately, however, your enthusiasm for God’s is likely to end there, especially when you compare it to two other movies that also happened to be released in 2017. First, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth offered an even more provocative portrait of the effects of emotional repression. In his attempts to capture the impact of systemic misogyny on his protagonist, after all, Oldroyd made her commit acts so repugnant that even the viewer occasionally had difficulty sympathizing with her. By comparison, Johnny is definitely not easy to like; he’s an alcoholic, and judging by the slurs he sometimes uses, he’s also a racist. Yet unlike Oldroyd, Francis Lee never shows us anything that fundamentally calls into question the sympathy we instinctively feel towards Johnny as a protagonist. In a sense, you could say that Lee sets a sort of “limit” on how inhuman and grotesque loneliness can make people – and on the whole, that’s why God’s might feel a bit tame.

Meanwhile, if Macbeth makes God’s look gentle, Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-nominated Call Me by Your Name makes it look unimaginative. Guadagnino’s work, after all, redefined the LGBT genre; instead of wallowing in familiar, homophobia-based story tropes, it offered a universal, defiantly sanguine tribute to first love that never even used the word “gay.” By contrast, Francis Lee’s portrayal of the perils of repression is a welcome update of Ang Lee’s work – but an update is all it is. Emotional acuity aside, it ultimately remains wedded to the kind of shame-based narrative that’s always been a defining feature of LGBT movies. It might be a bit unfair to criticize Francis Lee for not doing something he likely had no intention of even trying. But leaving aside the vagaries of the film distribution process, there’s a good, quality-based reason Call Me has been getting more recognition from critics and awards organizations than God’s.

Still, even if God’s isn’t quite as meaningful as some of its thematic peers, you’ll eventually feel glad you watched it. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both came off as slightly affected in Brokeback: you couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were two stars trying to “stretch” themselves with “challenging” roles. Meanwhile, you could say that O’Connor and Secareanu benefit from their lack of preceding reputations – but even then, each of them gives the kind of subtle, understated performance that very much serves the story’s emphasis on emotional repression. And despite its aforementioned shortcomings, Francis Lee’s direction carries a remarkable economy; as with Oldroyd in Macbeth, his style has the kind of austerity and focus that speak to both his refreshing lack of conceit and his willingness to hone in on the emotional nuances of his characters’ ordeals. God’s may not go as far as you hope – but if nothing else, it’s at least a clear indication that O’Connor, Secareanu, and Lee are three names you’d be foolish to forget.

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

***

God’s Own Country (2017)

Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones

Running Time: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Unrated

Produced by: Manon Ardisson, Anna Duffield, Diarmid Scrimshaw, Jack Tarling

Written and Directed by: Francis Lee