God’s Own Country is the most talked about gay film of the year, and deservedly so. After taking prizes at Sundance and Berlin film festivals, then opening the Edinburgh Film Festival, this story about two boys who fall in love in West Yorkshire is finally in our cinemas. Jack Cline has been talking to writer-director Francis Lee. Plus he meets actor Alec Secareanu and reviews the film.
Where did this story come from?
I grew up in a remote rural location on the Pennine hills of West Yorkshire. My family are still there. My dad is a sheep farmer about 20 minutes away from where we shot the film. And I live up there now, on that hill! But I left when I was 20 and I came to London for drama school. And I could never get that landscape out of my head. It just totally informed who I was, emotionally and physically. So about five years ago when I started thinking about making the film, it was just the most natural place to go play, and to investigate that world again.
It’s interesting that there seems to be very little homophobia.
For me this film is not about sexuality, but about a boy who is struggling with being vulnerable enough to love and be loved. And I think that one of the interesting things that has come out occasionally, when the film is shown in a city like London or LA, is this question of how realistic is it that two men could live in a rural working-class community, work and have a relationship? One of the reasons that I don’t really tackle homophobia in the film is that I have never seen it in that community. When somebody assumes that a working-class community would be riddled with homophobia, it does make me ask them, ‘Well, why would you think that?’ We can’t get complacent in our urban, liberal ways!
But Josh O’Connor’s character Johnny seems afraid and ashamed of his homosexuality.
That’s an interesting take on it, but I don’t personally see it like that. I think he’s self-loathing because he doesn’t want to be emotional. He wants to shut down. I didn’t necessarily think it had to do with his sexuality. It’s about masculinity, which is such an interesting topic.
There are a lot of themes gurgling around in there.
I never thought about how the film fits in socially or politically, or anything like that. I just thought about it from a character point of view. And so it’s very interesting to see how people are making comparisons or trying to fit it here or here, talking about it in terms of Brexit or rural communities or whatever it is.
How did you decide to cast Romanian actor Alec Secareanu as the other romantic lead?
I always knew I wanted him to be an outsider. When I started to make the film, I had a job in a salvage yard and one of the guys I worked with was from Romania. We became very good friends, and I was shocked by his treatment in the UK and how he coped with that emotionally and physically. That piqued my interest. I started to research Romania and discovered areas there, like in Transylvania, that are similar to Yorkshire: little farms, working-class communities. Basically these two characters act like mirrors to each other, each with a different perspective. So that’s why he became Gheorghe from Romania.
The actors really inhabit these roles.
That was a process. I knew these parts would be hard to play, so about three or four months before the shoot I started working with Josh and Alec individually to build their characters from scratch. So by the time the two boys turned up on set they knew everything about their characters. I shot the film chronologically to help their relationship and keep the magic on-screen. And I kept the boys separate: Alec lived down in the town and Josh lived at my dad’s. That extra frisson and nervousness that they brought to it worked perfectly. Then as the two characters on-screen were developing their relationship, I moved them into the same house. So their personal relationship developed too.
There are steamy sex scenes, but the sexiest moments are when they’re cuddling and kissing.
That says more about you!
OK, moving right along, they both look like they know how to work a farm.
It was really important that everything in this film was real. I never wanted any fakery. The boys worked on farms for two weeks solidly before the shoot, because it needed to be second nature to them. They did long shifts, starting at 6 and finishing at 6, and they did everything. It made the shooting process much easier.
So what was the biggest challenge while filming?
The weather! It was bad. It was spring in Yorkshire, so it was four seasons in a day. It was hard to contain the continuity. Starting off in the morning with snow and then going into sunshine and then rain and then back to bright sunshine and then to hail! That was quite hard.
So how have audiences reacted to the film at festivals?
It’s been a long, enjoyable and really interesting journey. The film has really hit a chord with people. I was very blinkered, very focussed on making this film, because there are aspects of it that are very personal. And now audiences have started to feel ownership over it. Their personal responses to the emotions or the characters or the world actually is lovely, because I feel like it’s not mine anymore.
Meet the outsider
At age 32, Romanian actor Alec Secareanu plays immigrant farmer Gheorghe in God’s Own Country, his first lead role in an English-language film. But two weeks of training and rehearsal with co-star Josh O’Connor helped calm his nerves.
“When we got to the set it was quite easy because we knew what we had to do,” Secareanu says. “And chemistry grew between the four of us: me, Josh, director Francis Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards. It was a very close relationship, so when we started filming it was comfortable.”
One thing Secareanu had to master was skinning a lamb for a key scene when the guys are out with the flock. “Yeah, it’s a new skill,” Secareanu laughs. “Francis’ father taught me how to skin a rabbit and then a lamb. And we did it in one take. Even birthing the lamb, it’s really happening! It was very important for us as actors to be able to do that because it says a lot about your character.
And he also had to get very intimate with his costar O’Connor. “Josh is a lovely person,” he says. “He’s an incredible actor and we really got along. It was very organic, especially with the sex scenes, which were like choreography. We got two pages of steps, like ‘this is where you grab the hand’ and ‘do this’ and ‘roll over’ and then ‘do this’. It was all very technical. But we started to really trust that we were in the same story, developing our characters and trusting that everybody knew their job.”
God’s Own Country – review by Jack Cline
A gay romance set on a sheep farm, it’s no wonder that this film is being called the “West Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain”. But it’s much more than that. This is a finely crafted debut for writer-director Francis Lee, who tells a complex, engaging story that’s never preachy even though it’s loaded with punchy themes.
At the centre is Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who doesn’t seem very happy about running the family farm after his father (Ian Hart) is disabled by a stroke. When away from home, Johnny drinks a lot and has rutting sex with strange men, but certainly doesn’t consider himself gay. Then the dark, sexy Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives. And after an initial stand-off, Gheorghe and Johnny discover a mutual attraction.
What follows is a voyage of discovery for Johnny, who learns that it’s possible to have both love and sex with a man. Lee writes and directs their scenes together with such authenticity that the strongest moments between them are the quietest ones, as Gheorghe teaches Johnny the value of a quiet kiss. Plus some more focussed rutting, of course. And most importantly, the story is about hope for the future, rather than the usual dread of narrow-minded oppression.
All of this is beautifully photographed in a way that catches the tiniest details of the actors’ finely tuned performances. Both of these men are rather lust-worthy in their authenticity, mainly because they’re complex, imperfect guys just trying to find love. There are elements of Brexit politics, generational conflicts, casual bigotry and economic pressures, but this is really just a simple love story told with quiet passion and a final act that surprises us with what it says about our society and how we feel about it.