It’s been a long while since the Edinburgh International Film Festival has had an opening film of some substance, but it has broken that trend with gusto. This is a choice that is far from pointlessly shocking, though it is gritty, and it certainly isn’t simple straight fayre, though it is essentially romantic. Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is an astounding British debut, a perfect choice to build the foundation for a successful festival.
The Festival Theatre is full to the rafters as first-time director Lee takes the stage to introduce his film. He is, most certainly, a humble man and he promises his film will show us the world as seen through his eyes. He sees past the surface and stereotypes, laying bare the little-known truths that he has seen. He grew up in the film’s setting of Yorkshire and he sees both its grey windswept moors and its fiery romance.
The film begins watching Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) run his family farm as his father recovers from a stroke. The young man does his best but late-night boozing and searching for conquests doesn’t help matters. Johnny sees sex as a challenge and a release, he entices other men with his smouldering looks before dealing with them roughly and without love. That is until Romanian immigrant Georghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives as a temporary worker.
The world-wearier foreigner introduces Johnny to a different kind of relationship, questioning the despair he feels about his life in the Yorkshire moors. The two young actors give tender and explosive performances as the two begin to come close beyond Johnny’s wildest imaginings. Only when Johnny’s father suffers a second stroke does Johnny have to start finding an answer to this question.
With his story of international gay love, Francis Lee has made a powerfully prescient film. He smashes down typecasts with Johnny’s accepting and compassionate grandmother Deirdre, played by a ferociously on point Gemma Jones. He also presents a gay relationship in a way that is so often unseen in cinema, bereft of problems due to sexuality. They face challenges of commitment and character, and their eventual destination is an immensely satisfying conclusion.
In a way, it seems that Lee is challenging the prevailing mood of a country that seems to be closing in on itself of and is becoming increasingly small minded. That may be how it looks to some but, as promised, Lee clearly see’s beyond the superficial.