A new frontier: ‘God’s Own Country’
Hing Yee Chan reviews the latest trends in queer cinema.
Halfway into God’s Own Country is when everything changes. After a tussle of lust on the desolate moors, Johnny and Gheorghe look certain to withdraw from each other once they are back at the farmhouse, under the watchful eye of Dad and Nan. Their love will never blossom and it’s all bound to end in heartbreak.
But then, completely out of his reserved character, Johnny boots Nan out of the living room and starts smooching Gheorghe. It’s at this moment that God’s Own Country crosses a new frontier in queer filmmaking.
Directed by Francis Lee, the film tells the story of Johnny, a Yorkshire farmer who leads a repressed and self-destructive life. Eventually, he opens up emotionally and takes responsibility for the farm when he falls in love with Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker. The film has been praised for its honest portrayal of raw, rural life—from the physicality of birthing lambs to the parochial xenophobia that Gheorghe suffers.
But its importance, in the scope of queer cinema, is far larger than that.
First, unlike so much queer cinema, the film isn’t centred on the social struggles bound up in LGBT+ identity. Notably, it doesn’t even depict homophobia. Rather, its plot is driven by Johnny’s emotional growth, which develops out of his love for Gheorghe. This is different from films like Carol and Brokeback Mountain which give central treatment to issues of homophobia and the social reaction to queer sexual orientation. Queer lives are richer than sexuality alone, and queer people deserve to have stories told about them that go beyond their sexual orientation. And especially today, with all the progress we’ve made, queer audiences don’t deserve to face homophobia on-screen any more than they do in real life.
So instead of an overt focus on questions of sexual orientation, the film celebrates unfiltered intimacy between two people of the same gender. This is surprisingly untypical of queer cinema. Across the genre, directors still pander to straight audiences, almost consciously avoiding portraying moments that might be too ‘uncomfortable’ for them. Industry dynamics are to blame. Films, queer films included, need to sell tickets, so popularity is a must. It’s easier to attract an audience wider than the LGBT+ community alone if a film’s content is ‘palatable’ to straight audiences. It’s also easier to clinch big accolades, and the respectability that—according to the straight-gaze—comes with them: award voting panels are still overwhelmingly heterosexual (and white, and male).
Call Me by Your Name is a notorious recent example, unabashed in portraying its hetero sex scenes, but coy when it came to gay ones. Practically as soon as it was released, the film embarked on a promotional quest for the Oscars. In lesbian film particularly, intimacy is often unrealistically fetishised for the straight, male gaze: take Blue is the Warmest Colour, which accordingly found praise with male critics and was disparaged by lesbian audiences.
God’s Own Country, on the other hand, portrays queer intimacy with understated honesty. The sex scenes track Johnny’s emotional development and the budding affection between himself and Gheorghe. The film is also unafraid to show small moments of tenderness: subtle touches, shy smiles, sweet kisses. It’s a realistic portrait of falling in love to which queer audiences can relate. Indeed, God’s Own Country is so committed to queer intimacy it doesn’t even depict any heterosexual relationships.
Moreover, the director is himself gay. This seems like a rather low bar, but the director of Moonlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, was straight. It’s important that LGBT+ people can tell their own stories and inject their authentic worldview into them. With direct involvement in the LGBT+ community, they also understand more intuitively what kinds of stories queer audiences are seeking. Yet sadly, too many straight directors still profit from stories of marginalised, queer individuals.
Most importantly, God’s Own Country ends not in tragedy, but hope.
E.M. Forster, writing Maurice in the 1910s, commented, “A happy ending was imperative… two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows”. Still, most queer films insist on ending in despair. This association of queerness to negativity doesn’t help LGBT+ people coming to terms with their identity in a hostile world.
God’s Own Country offers an antidote to this bleak outlook. It’s not the fake fairytale ending of a Disney movie, nor is it the cheap fluff of a romcom—it’s genuine and powerful, hard won through Johnny’s growth as a character. LGBT+ people, especially younger LGBT+ people, deserve more films like this, which can provide both romantic escapism and realistic aspiration.
The final lines of the closing track of the film are: “I long to be carried on / Once to be lifted strong / Out of the loneliness and the emptiness of the days.” It’s a declaration of hope not only for Johnny and Gheorghe, but also for the future of queer film. God’s Own Country isn’t the first film to have any of those elements, but it’s the first to meld them all together so effectively. It’s truly set a bar towards which future queer films will aspire.