Francis Lee’s Yorkshire home has no mobile phone signal. “When I first moved here, I had to walk to the top of the moor before I could talk to anyone,” he says. “It’s wet and cold and windy up there. And I was very used to London life.”
|Josh O’Connor, left, and Alec Secareanu|
The 48-year-old film director is in his cottage near Haworth, the village that was home to the Brontës. A few miles down the road, in Soyland, lies his parents’ farm, where his father still works the land and tends to his beasts. It was where Lee spent his childhood, and it was there, as a teenager, that he realized he was gay.
Last year, the farm was host to a fair amount of commotion. During lambing season, it was used as the setting for God’s Own Country, Lee’s directorial debut, which charts the almost silent romance between Johnny, a young, alcohol-addled, and sullen Yorkshire farmer, and Gheorghe, a self-possessed, gentle Romanian immigrant drafted in to help tend the flock.
For Lee, it was a return to his old life. At 20 he had left the farm for drama school in London, and had gone on to appear in TV shows such as Heartbeat, Casualty, and Midsomer Murders. In the evenings, he would navigate the east London gay scene — bars and clubs that acted as safe spaces for young men exploring their sexuality.
“I got to know a lot of gay men who were very masculine,” Lee says. “[But] although they slept with other men, they didn’t have access to their emotions, and would never dream of talking about how they felt. That strange inability of men to understand what they’re going through fascinated me.” It was the germ of an idea.
He thought about how difficult he had found the prospect of showing any weakness to a lover, even though he had taught himself to do so on demand in front of a camera. He also considered what might have happened if he had never left the farm. “I questioned how my life would have turned out,” he says. “What would I have done if I met someone I liked? Would I have been able to find love?”
Josh O’Connor was cast to play Johnny. A middle-class Londoner who grew up in Cheltenham, O’Connor decided to try out his northern accent on his first meeting with Lee. “I just assumed he was a Yorkshireman,” says the director. “And he seemed, in his body language and mannerisms, to understand how repressed and unhappy Johnny would be.”
For the role of Gheorghe, a casting agent was sent to Bucharest and returned with the screen test of an actor called Alec Secareanu. Two years earlier, Secareanu had played a gay character on the stage in Budapest, and during the production homophobic militants stormed the theatre in protest. Secareanu used that experience in his depiction of Gheorghe, a man trying to find in this strange, new culture the things that gave him comfort at home in Romania.
Lee shot the film chronologically, using the seasons — winter turning to spring, the lambs taking their first breaths, plants struggling from the earth — as ellipses for the pair’s dawning relationship.
God’s Own Country premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Lee was awarded the World Cinema Directing Award and the film was hailed by critics as Britain’s next great “gay” movie. It was fêted for its northern, rural setting, and its understanding of how immigration has affected such communities.
There is a lineage of British films dealing with similar subjects, among them Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2004 My Summer of Love (exploring the relationship between two women), the 1999 Channel 4 TV series Queer as Folk (set in the more urban environment of Manchester) and Stephen Frears’ 1985 My Beautiful Laundrette (depicting the romance between a working-class Londoner and the son of immigrants). “It was important to me to make a film that can exist in the ‘queer’ canon,” Lee says. “But I never saw the story just in those terms.”
He bridles at the stereotypes associated with farming life. “There’s an assumption that, because Johnny’s a farmer, he has to deal with homophobia,” Lee says. “I come from that world, and I’ve never encountered that . . . Homophobia is not somehow inherent in rural, working-class communities.”
Much was made of the debt God’s Own Country owed to Brokeback Mountain, the seminal gay romance made in 2005 by Ang Lee. The correlation is understandable. Both films follow the lives of sheep farmers who act impulsively on their mutual attraction.
Yet the similarities purposely end there. “The comparison to Brokeback is not one I shy away from,” Lee says. “That film was very important to me when it was released, but I haven’t watched it since. It’s very located in a particular time and place, and my film explores a very different time and place.”
While in Brokeback both men use their wives as accomplices in denial, in God’s Own Country Johnny’s mother finds a condom casually left on the floor and merely tuts in irritation. We realize she knows her son is gay, even if it goes unsaid.
“I didn’t want to make a ‘coming out’ film,” Lee says. “I felt that, as a culture, we’ve covered that. I wanted to make a film about masculinity, repression, and emotion. The men here just also happen to be gay.”
Throughout the history of LGBT cinema, a damaging trope has predominated: bad things happen to gay people, and they will never find enduring love. God’s Own Country sets out to contradict that. In Brokeback, love cannot exist. Here, love between two men is normalized and dramatized without recourse to sentimentality or exoticism.
If God’s Own Country owes a debt to any film, it’s to a smaller, more humble but no less accomplished movie: Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s 2011 debut, which follows the conversations of two men over the course of a weekend as they try to work out whether they should take their sexual connection further.
“Weekend was a big moment for me,” Lee says. “It was exciting to see what could be achieved, and the discussion that film created at the time. But we’ve moved on a lot as a society, even since the release of Weekend.
“Gay spaces have been homogenized into straight culture,” he adds. “Gay people are now very comfortable moving in mixed environments. But, often because of economic reasons, gay spaces have been obliterated. The characters in my film wouldn’t necessarily seek out such spaces, but they aren’t available to them, either. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.”
The release of God’s Own Country has been timed to coincide closely with the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexual acts in the UK — so long as they were kept private.
Seen from this perspective, Lee’s film is both a testament and a challenge. It questions our willingness to see gay stories as larger stories, rather than as emissaries from a separate culture.
“We’ve come so far,” Lee says of the gay community’s struggle to be fully accepted by wider society. “But we can never be complacent, we can never start to think the fight has been won.
“But I didn’t worry about that here. This is a film about everyone’s attempts to love and be loved. That’s the toughest thing any of us will ever do, no matter who you are.”
‘God’s Own Country’ is released in the UK on September 1 and in the US in October
Photographs: Agatha A Nitecka