Francis Lee‘s directorial debut opens with the dawning of the day over the Yorkshire Dales, as a small house, shrunken beneath hills and vast fields, slowly comes to life. This is the kind of detachment Lee has become known for: sweeping landscapes that nearly swallow up his characters, rivalled only in dramatics by the quiet declarations of love and act of intimacy that are threaded throughout his films.
God’s Own Country is a special piece of LGBTQ+ cinema because Lee takes Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Gheorge (Alec Sacreanu)’s relationship outside of the often hevaily erotic and sexually-charged lens that homosexual relationships are often viewed through. Instead, their relationship is equally balanced with moments of genuine romantic tenderness. It allows the film to speak through universally recognisable signifiers of great love, like the infamous scene wherein Gheorge cleans and treats a wound on Johnny’s hand. Though it is a small moment, it speaks loudly in its declaration and portrayal of two gay men, both vulnerable, tender and intimate, allowed to exist just as two men in love and in hurt.
The genius of Lee’s direction is his ability to manipulate the visual landscape to chart his characters’ relationship. In the beginning, the Yorkshire landscape is washed in cold blue and green hues; Johnny nearly blends into the sky in his navy overalls, the hunched way he walks, as if the world itself is an oppressive force on his gravity. He drinks too much and feels too little, he’s harsh to those around him, and bar casual sex doesn’t allow himself to touch or be touched.
However, this changes when Gheorge comes. A Romanian immigrant, Gheorge comes to the farm to help Johnny with lambing season. Of course, as with any good romance, he comes to be so much more than that. Immediately Gheorge stands out: he wears a bright red jumper, contrasting Johnny’s earthy tones, he’s soft spoken and he looks– at the world, at Johnny, at anything around him- unlike Johnny, who so firmly keeps his eyes on the ground and can hardly maintain eye contact with those he’s talking to. Gheorge is soft where Johnny is calloused, and this is where their relationship shines.
Where Johnny’s harshness and solitude is reflected in unforgiving hills and cloudy skies, when Gheorge arrives he runs into the fields- the same landscape that Johnny scorns- and standing on a precipice declares it beautiful. As he does so the camera moves back, revealing a wide shot of a sprawling valley below. The landscape, which had prior been oppressive and claustrophobic, is suddenly opened up at Gheorge’s behest.
Poet Mary Oliver has a quote that, upon my re-watching, kept calling back to me: “I thought the earth remembered me, / she took me back so tenderly”. In God’s Own Country, landscape and personal relation are simultaneous and intricately bound together; one affects the other, affects the other, etc. Once Gheorge notes how beautiful the Yorkshire scenery is, even in its seclusion and enormity, so too can his and Johnny’s relationship begin to flourish. As their relationship progresses- from rough to tender- so too does the landscape and their interactions with it.
Without getting too into literary theory, there’s an interesting phenomenon that Patsy Stoneman has charted in romantic films originating from William Wyler’s 1939 Wuthering Heights: the ‘hilltop lovers’ trope. This is at once both the visual representation of lovers on the hilltop- or any natural and vast space- (Heathcliff and Cathy, Jack and Ennis, Johnny and Gheorghe) and the symbolic space of two lovers, torn apart, and inextricably brought back together, the force of their ‘love’ so strong it cannot be sustained outside this space. Which is why for most of our couples above their stories must end in tragedy. It’s not very surprising, then, that Hollywood often appropriates this trope as an excuse for its queer films to have utterly tragic endings. God’s Own Country, on the other hand, is brilliantly emboldened by the sheer strength of the love story it tells. What makes God’s Own Country so genuinely groundbreaking and heart throbbingly romantic is that it has the audacity to embrace the lovers on the hilltop trope, imbuing its characters and their love with the strength to persevere on and away from the hilltop.
Coming up to Valentine’s Day and all the celebrations of love that come with it, God’s Own Country is a rare and special find. Not only is it a moving portrait of two people falling in love, but it also celebrates LGBTQ+ love and rejects many of the harmful tropes that come with it. There’s no emotional coming out scene and both protagonists get their happy ending (and stay alive, to boot). God’s Own Country flies in the face of these supposed ‘necessities’ for a gay romance by allowing its main characters to simply be, and to be in love.