Widgets Magazine

Love is a tasteless, trite thing in ‘God’s Own Country’

A scene from ‘God’s Own Country.’ (Courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment)

“God’s Own Country,” the debut feature from writer and director Francis Lee, focuses on Johnny Saxby, a young, gay man who lives on a desolate farm in Yorkshire. By his own admission, he is a “fuck-up.” Johnny also drinks too much at the pub, neglects his father and grandmother and resorts to anonymous sex for pleasure. His ailing father can no longer take care of the homestead, so Gheorghe Ionescu, a Romanian immigrant worker, is hired to help Johnny with his day-to-day responsibilities. After some initial animosity toward each other, Johnny and Gheorghe fall in love and try to forge a lasting relationship. The film has generally been lauded in critical circles – Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times admired Lee’s depiction of “raw, explosive physicality,” while Jeanette Catsoulis of The New York Times praised the “awkward and pasty and explicit” nature of Johnny and Gheorghe’s romance.

As I viewed “God’s Own Country,” however, I could not help thinking of a quote by Vladimir Nabokov, the author of the 20th-century classics “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” Nabokov remarked that in portraying love, great novelists invariably address complex themes of passion and sensuality in their works. He criticized writers that ignore these topics, decrying “those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by thumbs of tense mediocrities and called ‘powerful’ and ‘stark’ by the reviewing hack.” I would not go so far as to call Lee a mediocrity, and Chang and Catsoulis are certainly not hacks. Nevertheless, underneath the powerful and stark qualities that they celebrate, Lee’s film is undeniably banal, and his depiction of a love affair between two very different men lacks emotion and relevance.  

​The first ten minutes of the film epitomize Lee’s approach. The film begins with a shot of the bleak Yorkshire landscape. Then, we see Johnny vomiting because he drank too much. Once the sun rises, he pisses, aids in a particularly gruesome live animal birth, has anonymous anal sex and shoots a calf. All of these sensational actions are meant to communicate us one point – life on a British farm is tough. As I watched these events unfold, I kept wondering why Lee felt we needed to see vomiting and pissing and animal birth and anal sex and animal death to understand this relatively simple idea. Surely one of these actions, or simply one close-up of Johnny’s grim, dispirited expression, would have conveyed that his life is not a bucolic idyll.

Furthermore, not even the sex scene contributes to our understanding of Johnny’s character. While other filmmakers have shown characters during sex to reveal the complex emotions driving them, the only thing Lee reveals about Johnny in this moment is his derriere. In his determination to present an unromantic view of farm life, Lee fails to create a compelling love story between Johnny and Gheorghe. We see them making love many times, but we never understand why they want to sleep together in the first place. Dialogue is very spare in this film, but when Johnny and Gheorghe do converse, they discuss how their love “can’t go on like it has,” how “they can’t go through” a painful affair again and how their love “will not survive.” As two gay men from different cultures, Johnny and Gheorghe are not a typical couple, but they communicate in cliché.

Most importantly, Lee does not explore the multifaceted identities of his characters. Although Johnny calls Gheorghe a “Gypsy” in the film’s early scenes, the fact that Gheorghe is a migrant worker does not have a large effect on his role in the story. Although Johnny and Gheorghe call each other “freak” and “faggot” throughout the film, they do not discuss their sexual identities. Reviewers like Chang and Catsoulis have praised the film for normalizing homosexuality. They forget, however, that Johnny and Gheorghe are not two fashionable New York City socialites. They live in the extremely conservative British countryside, where many people still regard homosexuality as a sin. Surely, some comment on Johnny and Gheorghe’s positions as gay men in this society is warranted. ​By ignoring these questions of identity, Lee made me question why Johnny and Gheorghe matter. After all, any couple can have sex and say trite things to each other. I concede that it is difficult for a filmmaker to address these issues and to portray the joys, fears, tribulations and insecurities of two people in love. It is not difficult, however, to make vomiting, pissing, live animal births or sex raw and awkward and explicit, because these are by definition raw, awkward and explicit actions. The romance between Johnny and Gheorghe could have made for a passionate, moving film, but this tale, as told by Lee, is full of sex and farming, signifying nothing.

.Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.