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God's Own Country: an achingly romantic gay love story

REVIEW by Drew Rowsome

30 October 2017

A film centred on a gay romance is still so rare that it arouses as much trepidation as it does hunger. For decades we have projected ourselves onto the divas and movie stars who, while resolutely heterosexual, still had the power to express the emotions and desires we also feel. So when God's Own Country, trailing acclaim and awards, promises the shopworn tale of a repressed Brit saved by the love and lust of a Romanian gypsy, I couldn't resist.

God's Own Country is swooningly gorgeous. Josh O'Connor as the Brit has a quirky appeal, and Alec Secareanu as the tall, dark and handsome is typecast. That they both are as talented, able to convey a lot of emotions with little dialogue, as they are alluring, is a bonus. And they are joined by a third character, the British countryside, that is lingered on lovingly and with deliberate framing to emphasis both its vistas and its intimate secrets. The green verdant terrain is given as much emphasis as the tantalizing terrain of the men's bodies.

Fortunately God's Own Country is not all gloss and cinematography. O'Connor has an anonymous spit-for-lube encounter in a trailer used for hauling cows, and the men's first sex scene is rough and conducted in mud that does not look at all art-directed. The progression of their sexual relationship from candid to candlelight, is mirrored by the depiction of farm life. Though the symbolism is blatant, the amount of sweat and the necessary brutality of labouring on a farm is shown in ways that are unusually harsh. But the realism pays off when love blossoms and Secareanu's character midwifes life instead of death.

Writer/director Francis Lee forefronts the gay love story but he is also, as evidenced by the final credits, filming a hymn to the small family farm and the people who work them. And, as artisanal cheese-making is about as stereotypically a gay industry as there is, the two themes dovetail neatly. O'Connor's arc, as he slowly thaws and releases his grip on tradition, is beautifully and subtlely played and it almost appears as if his physical presence, the very structure of his face, changes as the character accepts some happiness. This is mirrored by very fine work from the team of Gemma Jones and Ian Hart who, as the parents, have the very same struggles but in supporting roles. 

But it is Secareanu who is the leading man. Though there is casual nudity and gay sex scenes that are more explicit that the mainstream usually permits, Lee never treats the men as sex objects in the way he does the countryside. But Secareanu's deep eyes and lithe musculature can't help but draw the eye and ardour. We don't just understand why O'Connor thaws, we experience it with him. Despite being distanced by the overt symbolism, occasionally Masterpiece Theatre-slow pace, overly coiffed hair, and the relentlessly linear plot, by the time the climax arrived, my heart was in the grips of God's Own Country and Secareanus' charm. The magic of film romance had worked and elicited a visceral reaction: I won't be signing up to shovel shit or birth breeched lambs, but I would gladly accept the attentions of a roaming gypsy in need.

God's Own Country opens Fri, Nov 3 at the TIFF Lightbox, 350 King St W. tiff.net, godsowncountry.film

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