You’ve got to hand it to movies that introduce their main character as aggressively unpleasant right from the start. We might suspect that redemption will come, but the prospect of spending a lot of time with an obnoxious protagonist can be dispiriting when you’re just sitting down to a night at the movies.
Such is the case with “God’s Own Country,” or at least it was for me. My spirits sank a little when it became clear that Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who works long days at his family’s small, grubby Yorkshire farm, would be the hero of this tale.
When he isn’t yanking newborn calves out of their mothers (this is a movie that shares the realities of farm life in realistic detail), Johnny is binge-drinking, disdaining his parents (played by the excellent actors Ian Hart and Gemma Jones), and occasionally engaging in sexual couplings that have more to do with Johnny’s hostile view of the world than with a need for affection. Not jolly company, really.
So it’s a measure of first-time director Francis Lee’s skill that we hang in there with Johnny and hope for an upswing. Then comes a Romanian laborer, Gheorghe (Alec Secaraneau), who arrives at the farm for temporary work.
Gheorghe is as warm as Johnny is cold, and when the two men go on a job into the hills (it could be in the vicinity of Brokeback Mountain, yes), sparks fly between them.
As though aware that his story line is a romantic vision — things turn around very quickly — Lee roots this tale in the soggy muck of a working farm. (In that sense, the title is complicated: There is a stark beauty here, although it might be difficult to notice if your boots are sunk in manure all day.)
The filmmaker grew up on a farm in the north of England, and you never doubt that this tough life is being portrayed from the inside. The characters don’t talk much, including the mostly wordless tension between Johnny and Gheorghe, which evolves from rough passion to something like tender courtship.
The actors ably convey this (O’Connor and Secaraneau seem destined for strong careers), with O’Connor making Johnny look nearly happy by the end of the film. Quite an achievement, considering where we began.
“God’s Own Country” (3 stars)
A dour Yorkshire farmhand has his life changed by the arrival of a Romanian worker in this grimy tale, an impressive directing debut by Francis Lee. The actors are strong and the mucky setting of the farm is brought to authentic life.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for nudity, language
Opening Friday: SIFF Uptown