Francis Lee’s debut feature film God’s Own Country, is a frank and unsentimental portrait of masculinity, loneliness, love and same-sex desire that pushes far beyond a simplistic, coming-out narrative. Set in the sublime, yet unforgivingly isolated Yorkshire Dales, the picture has scooped numerous awards at the Sundance, Berlin and Edinburgh film festivals for it’s pregnant silences and viscerally honest depiction of rural farming life.
The story centres on Johnny, a young sheep farmer who’s overwhelmed by the sole responsibility of maintaining his family’s land in the wake of his father’s stroke, yet too proud to accept any help. Numbing his frustration with drink and casual sex, Johnny’s daily routine of self-sabotage is disrupted with the arrival of Gheorghe, a romanian immigrant hired to help for the lambing season. Trapped by family obligation, Johnny channels his frustration into physical labour, cocooning himself in a sullen exterior that shuns intimacy in favour of brusque standoffishness. As he and Gheorghe work silently on the moors however, their relationship gradually grows into a deep and unspoken affection that threatens to completely destabilize Johnny’s understanding of self.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release this September, we spoke to Lee about why he returned to his hometown to shoot the feature, how his film challenges prejudices about northern attitudes to homosexuality and what it means to resist categorising the film as a universal love story.
It’s a very visceral film, there are scenes of lambs being skinned, newborn calves being shot, muscular atrophy and the sex is far from romanticised - why did you choose to focus on those physical details?
I wanted to see everything, the nuts and bolts. I don’t tend to worry or shy away from the rough side as well as the smooth side. This world feels very visceral to me, I wanted to present these day-to-day things realistically not romantically. I wanted to present it very truthfully as I had seen it. I’m from the Pennines in West Yorkshire where this film is set, my dad is still a sheep farmer there, and I live there now. All of these things felt real to me, so I think that’s why it’s quite raw in places.
You’ve said God’s Own Country isn’t an autobiographical picture, but did making the film feel like you were revisiting your youth in some way?
No, not really. The bit that is biographical is the landscape. That’s where I grew up, it’s where I’m from, it’s where I go back to. I left when I was 20, moving down to London to go to college. After I moved, I could never get the landscape out of my head, it felt creative and freeing and expansive. Whilst I was growing up I’d go out to be with animals and trees, I’d walk for miles on my own, it was beautiful but also very isolating, and difficult, and brutal a lot of the time. After I moved away from Yorkshire, I became aware of how much it had informed who I was emotionally and physically, it was omnipresent. When I started to make film, that’s the feeling I wanted to explore, that was the starting point - the landscape, it’s difficulties and it’s joy is one of the film’s central themes.
Johnny seems to wrestle with whether or not to stay on at the farm, maintaining the family's legacy, or leave as many of his friends have done. Was that ever a tension you grappled with? Did you have mixed feelings when you came to London about what you’d left behind?
Maybe in a fantasy kind of world, when things were tough in London, I might have thought “I should have just stayed in Yorkshire, I would have known what life was, and how to run it and do stuff and have security”, but not beyond that.
Loneliness, particularly Johnny’s loneliness is front-and-centre throughout...
He’s very sad, from an early age. His mum left because she couldn’t stand it on the farm, life stopped a little bit for the family when that happened. They’re not terribly emotionally demonstrative so he hasn’t learnt how to express himself. He’s angry, really angry - that his dad is ill, that responsibility for the farm has fallen on his shoulders. I don’t think he would have done, but there isn’t even an option for him to go away to college and experience something else. I think he’s frustrated with himself and very lonely. Someone like Johnny, it’s very hard for them to find a way to change how they see things or themselves.
A lot of queer cinema and films about the gay experience tend to focus on the loneliness of not being able to be open about who you are, even though the character’s are living in a busy city surrounded by people. God’s Own Country isn’t a coming out narrative, yet that loneliness is still there.
One of the reasons you see the town so close to the farm, twinkling in the valley, is because it’s there. It’s close and every year it gets closer as they build more. It’s easily accessible yet he can’t make that leap emotionally, because it would make him vulnerable. In the environment he’s grown up in, that kind of vulnerability is dangerous. He’s not self-hating because of his sexuality, but he’s still so shut down.
Perhaps it’s a story about someone learning to love someone else, and learning that they’re worthy of love…
I think so, do you? That’s a hard thing to learn right? It’s hard to accept love and give love back because you’ve got a lot to lose.
I do, but I suppose I also find it hard to divorce those feelings from an environment where you’re often told the way you love and who you love isn’t normal. It’s interesting to see a film which explores that question, without discussing it through a narrative about the self-acceptance that comes with being out...
One of the things that was important to me, is that his friends know, and they don’t have an issue with it.
His grandmother knows too, but there’s a fleeting moment - after she discovers Johnny’s relationship - where she lets herself cry. What is she sad about in that moment?
That’s such an interesting question, because I have my answer, but clearly other people interpret it in other ways. For me, she’s ironing her son’s pajamas, and she’s crying over his illness and her situation. If she’s crying because she found the condom, the next time you see her, and she talks about Gheorghe being a ‘good lad,’ that’s an act of total acceptance. It works on many levels.
That’s interesting! I read it more as her struggling to reconcile the life she’d imagined for her grandson, with this new knowledge of a relationship that she didn’t predict, but realises she needs to come to terms with...
I occasionally get asked “Is it realistic, would two men be able to live together and farm in a rural, farming community?” or “Wouldn’t his family throw him out or be homophobic?” I ask the same question back, “Why are you asking that? Why are you presuming that this community is inherently prejudiced? It isn’t?” This is my community, this is where I’m from, this is where I live and it’s where my family is from - this is my truth.
There’s isn’t much dialogue in the film, what prompted you to focus on moments of nonverbal communication?
It’s about representing these characters truthfully, they don’t verbalise how they feel, they show it in practical ways. One of my favourite scenes is when Johnny and Gheorghe eat pasta together, there’s no dialogue in that scene at all, but it works because you can see the domesticity that Gheorghe has brought to this bleak environment. The fire’s lit, there’s some old daffodils in a jar and the table is set. Johnny doesn’t enjoy anything at the beginning of the film, he doesn’t eat, he shovels his food in, he drinks to get wankered, the same with sex. What Gheorghe does, is slow him down. He makes him taste his food, he questions him, he challenges him, he does it physically, he teaches him about intimacy, and I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before. It blows Johnny’s mind.
Yet, there’s a moment where everything looks like it might fall apart...
Johnny can’t cope being questioned too far, he fucks it up.
Because he’s anxious about the vulnerability that comes with a relationship?
Yes. Rather than allowing the possibility of being rejected, he self-sabotages.
Where does that anxiety come from?
Being hurt, making himself vulnerable, saying you want something and someone saying no.
God’s Own Country has, to some extent, been reviewed as a universal love story. Do you resist that interpretation?
I’m a bit on the fence. I think this film couldn’t have been made if it was about a man and a woman, it couldn’t have been made if it was about two women. It’s about masculinity, communication, sex, but for me, at its heart it’s about love and hope. That feels fairly universal, but how can you say a story is universal? I don’t know where this sits in any kind of queer canon, and I tend to think it’s not my job. Lots of people who’ve seen God’s Own Country come from very diverse backgrounds, and the majority take away the emotional heartbeat of the film. That’s very gratifying. Whether that makes it universal or queer I don’t know. Do you agree with that?
I do, yet there’s an impulse in me that’s protective of something the ‘queer’ community has made. I don’t want people to ignore the gay themes that it explores, but at the same time, I think it’s great storytelling that’s not limited to just us…
Someone once said to me if you make a great political film, the people who you want to see it, won’t. I’d like people to see it.