The Chinese have a phrase for what it means to love someone else for all their beauty and flaws: 爱屋及乌 (ai wu ji wu). Loosely translated, if you love a person, you have to love the crows that visit their porch too. When you love someone, you begin to love the world, because the act of loving — whether reciprocated or not — makes you a better person, and it makes you want to be a better person for your beloved.
Francis Lee’s debut feature, God’s Own Country (2017), is about such a compassionate love. Set in the Northern England county of Yorkshire, Lee’s film follows the growing love affair between two young men: a Yorkshire farmer, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), whose self-destructive tendencies mirror the barren state of his farm, and a Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), hired by Johnny’s father, Martin Saxby (Ian Hart), to work as a temporary farmhand during lambing season. The film is centered on Britain’s neglected working-class, stuck toiling on the family farm while richer folk abandon Yorkshire in pursuit of a better life. Martin has been rendered disabled after a stroke, and Johnny views his father’s ailing health with contempt — Martin’s condition condemns Johnny to be a farmer for the rest of his life, working decaying land on which cattle only give birth to dead calves.
Johnny watches as these animals die and views his existence in the same pathetic way. He hooks up with strangers in dirty cattle trailers, but turns his partners over when they are reaching in for a kiss. He refuses to be looked at. He exchanges no words with the men he has sex with, only the rough and sickening sound of self-loathing bodies bruised against metal walls stained with all sorts of animal fluids. When asked out on a date at the local pub, Johnny’s face crunches up into a mixture of surprise and disgust, not quite knowing what to do with the prospect of actual human connection.
Like everything else in Johnny’s life, sex merely serves as a physical necessity. There is no space for tenderness when dying animals need to be euthanized and sick fathers need their sons to be farmers. The English pastoral, once used to justify imperialist conquest because it was supposedly favored by God, is now a catacomb filled with people imprisoned in a slow death by work. Rather than scapegoat Johnny’s sexuality as the sole source of his self-hatred, Lee reveals how decades of austerity have left behind a class of people who believe that they deserve no better than abject destitution. As Lee notes in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Northern gay men like Johnny have been taught to “get on” with the injustice they face; to be vulnerable is to realize that a lesser life is not what they deserve. The acknowledgment that life ought to be more than just work is soul-crushing for people like Johnny and Martin, who are condemned to bear the brunt of Britain’s systemic failures.
In the film, the tragedy of hardened masculinity is passed down across generations of working-class men. Johnny’s conversations with Martin are short, terse, and functional: the cows need to be fed, the fence needs to be mended, and so life goes on. To cope with the absence of a loving future, Johnny drowns out his hatred with binge-drinking and casual sex, refusing to be looked at for fear of understanding he deserves to be loved, even if he has learnt otherwise his whole life.
Gheorghe’s kindness begins to chip at Johnny’s hardened façade. While Johnny wolfs down his food with beer, Gheorghe brings small packets of salt to season his meager portion of instant noodles. Johnny’s reaction to Gheorghe seasoning his meal is one of intense heartache — he wants to ask Gheorghe to pass the salt — but he ultimately stays silent, as if finding comfort in the rejection of nourishment. Lee ravishes with loving attention the ordinary scenes we rarely spend time contemplating, and finds beauty in the banality of Johnny’s environment.
Watching in bewilderment as Gheorghe nurses a stillborn lamb back to life, Johnny tells him that it’s useless to save these dead runts. But a mournful look on Johnny’s face reveals his yearning for the same kind of motherly love. Like all of his friends who have left Yorkshire in search of a better life, Johnny’s mother abandoned him to become a hairdresser in the south of England. Unable to cope with this overwhelming loss, he hurls racist slurs at Gheorghe – who then pins Johnny to the ground, responding: “I know what you’re doing. I will fuck with you.” It is a strangely erotic scene, with Gheorghe getting to the heart of Johnny’s misery: like his father, Johnny alienates everyone for fear of eventual abandonment. He is unable to imagine another life beyond the present, and his nihilism advances the farm’s demise. Gheorghe, however, cuts up dead baby lambs and uses their fleece as warm jackets for other baby lambs. Love transforms the brutality of farming into something warm and beautiful.
Gheorghe’s compassion allows Johnny to see that love, like farming, is tremendously hard work. Nurturing young baby animals is part of the job, but it also requires a delicacy rarely afforded to Northern working-class men. Johnny refuses to wear winter jackets and thick gloves despite the cold weather because “getting on with it” — a phrase the Saxby family repeats like a mantra — means accepting less for fear that hope leads to disappointment. Sometimes self-loathing is easier than building a future together with someone else, especially when you are resigned to the perpetual solitude of the present.
As the farm comes alive under Gheorghe’s hands, Johnny gradually realizes he deserves love and attention, too. Despite the lush landscapes that characterize rural Yorkshire, Lee rarely uses establishing shots, preferring instead to shoot close-ups that emphasize the characters’ relationship with their surroundings. Johnny and Gheorghe are always tightly framed — they huddle around a campfire for heat, and sleep beside each other in a shed — and this filmic choice generates a tender intimacy between the two men. Johnny learns that life’s most boring and repetitive rituals are meant to be shared with someone else. Lee does not romanticize the poverty of rural life; rather, he uses it to highlight the importance of keeping the people you love close by.
“It is beautiful here, but lonely, no?” Gheorghe asks Johnny, wondering why Johnny sees Yorkshire as a “shithole” when the land can be used to nurture lambs and turn sheep’s milk into cheese. Gheorghe sees abundance in a life deadened by socio-economic deprivation. He brings Johnny up a hill to look at Yorkshire, Johnny’s home and whole life, in its expansive totality. Like Caspar David Friedrich’s wanderer poised above a sea of fog and mist, Gheorghe forces Johnny to see beyond the particular. Farming is lonely, but the land that Johnny berates is filled with a sublime beauty no longer visible to tired workers. In those few seconds, Johnny finally understands that his self-loathing has destroyed his ability to envision a life beyond his impoverished circumstances.
God’s Own Country suggests that it is only because we love and care for one another that we desire a better future beyond the quagmires of the present. For their first romantic date, Gheorghe decorates the dinner table with bright yellow daffodils plucked from the farm. A family estranged across generations comes together by letting in the flora that continues to bloom on dying land. Realizing that Johnny’s plate of pasta is too bland, Gheorghe stirs in some salt — slowly and lovingly. He tests Johnny’s plate again, just to check if the pasta finally has enough flavour. Only then do the two men have their teas. The cows will always need to be milked. Fences will always need to be fixed. But dinner with your loved ones should be enjoyed (with daffodils for scenery) after a hard day’s work. This quiet moment is the future that Johnny desperately aches for but is unable to have faith in until Gheorghe shows him that life should be different.
Towards the end of the film, Johnny finally gathers the courage to tell his father the changes he wants to make to save the farm: “I want it to be different … the way I want it to be.” It does not matter that the future may be disappointing. What matters is the loving hope, alleviating the exhaustion on Johnny’s face, when he sees bright yellow daffodils on the dinner table. The belief that he deserves a better life is no longer a death sentence but a sign that Johnny loves: a redeeming gesture of his humanity.