FRANCIS Lee’s debut feature, God’s Own Country, is a personal endeavour. Filmed on the West Yorkshire hills he grew up on, Lee’s film tells an unlikely and heartfelt love story between two young men.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a hard-edged and blunt-tongued young man, is struggling to keep up with the intensive workload on his ailing father’s farm. Disillusioned by his position in life, he spends most evenings getting blackout drunk before waking up vomiting in the toilet or hopelessly curled up outside in the mud.
Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) soon arrives to help out on the farm. But Johnny is initially unwelcoming of his new company, who he cruelly refers to as a ‘gypsy’. Yet as the two work closely on the farm, a relationship begins to blossom in harsh and bitterly cold Yorkshire spring.
As Lee confirmed at a Q&A about the film at the Curzon Soho (Save The Curzon Soho Petition), much of it had been drawn from within himself. Lee left Yorkshire as a 20-year-old and headed down south to become an actor. In that time, he appeared in minor roles on Heartbeat, Casualty, Dinnerladies and Midsomer Murders – to name a few.
Lee, who jokingly admitted he neither enjoyed nor was good at acting, only felt the confidence to explore his bigger passion – writing – with age. Decades later and back in Yorkshire, Lee began to put together some short films and spent time working on the script for God’s Own Country.
He revealed: ‘The starting point [for writing the film] was the landscape. I was totally obsessed by them [the West Yorkshire hills] and the effect that they had on me. They just felt to have formed who I am emotionally and physically. This felt a very natural place to go and explore.
‘I wanted to explore the idea of a place that in one sense felt really creative and open and wild and amazing, and, in another sense felt isolating and difficult and problematic.’
Lee does this, not with numerous wide shots of the landscape, but by homing in on Johnny and Gheorghe through extreme close-ups. This, Lee expanded, was part of an agreed set of rules with director of photography Johua James Richards to not dwell on the landscape, but, instead, focus on the impact it has on the people.
Along with this, God’s Own Country takes a stripped back approach to dialogue and music. The latter of which Lee explained his reasoning for in greater detail. He said: ‘I was very obsessed by the sound. I’ve got super sensitive hearing. I love sound. For me it is just as – sometimes more – important than visuals. I worked with a brilliant sound director [Anna Bertmark] who I sent up to Yorkshire.
‘She recorded hours and hours of atmospheres, so as soon as we got into the editing room we had a giant bank of natural sounds to play with. Every wind sound is orchestrated, every bird there for a very specific meaning. It’s endless.
‘The sound was a complete labour of love. With the music, I resisted and resisted but there were just a couple of sections that I wanted to go a bit more into Johnny’s head.’
There was one point in the Q&A, when Lee, understandably given the intense personal nature of this project, felt too emotional to answer a question on the father and grandmother figures in the film.
Yet he did feel comfortable elaborating upon the origin of Gheorghe’s character. He said: ‘When I gave up acting I got a job in a salvage yard. One of the guys I worked there with had come to the UK from Romania. Like lots of people, he had come to this country with his wife looking for better opportunities.
‘I was really shocked and ashamed at his experience of this country. That stayed with me and I always knew I wanted this character [Gheorghe] to be an outsider. So when I was writing this, I started researching Romania and discovered that this area of Romania [Transylvania] was quite similar to Yorkshire – in terms of farming and hills.
‘I felt that this character [Gheorghe] and this character [Johnny] could almost act as mirrors. They’ve had similar experiences but from a very different viewpoint.’
Both O’Connor and Secareanu have tremendous on-screen chemistry having worked hard on building their characters with Lee in rehearsals. The two had also spent two weeks working on a farm to learn the trade hands-on.
Lee praised the two young actors – and the casting directors in London and Bucharest that helped uncover them – for their transformative performances.
O’Connor, who Lee amusingly pointed out is a smiley lad from Cheltenham Spa, is a brute and totally convincing on-screen force. Secareanu, acting in his first English language film, brings an inner-warmth to unarm the hardiness and difficulty of Johnny.
Together with Lee, they will surely be propelled out of the freezing Yorkshire hills into the Hollywood spotlight by this impressive work.
When asked what he hoped audiences took away from the film, Lee responded: ‘For me, it would be a message of hope and of love. I am big fan of the human struggle and the human condition and how chinks of hope can come out of really depressing, difficult and problematic situations.’
God’s Own Country does exactly that. A beautiful film, sensitively acted and deserving of a wide British audience.
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