If there was ever any doubt, “gaydar” works in the countryside, too.
That’s not much consolation to Johnny Saxby, the bored, drunken heir to the family farm in the fine British melodrama, “God’s Own Country.”
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) a compassionate but unhappy farm “lad” who drinks too much and isn’t shy about getting his hands dirty and helping a heffer have her calf. Not that his tough-talking, barely-walking Dad (Ian Hart) would notice.
“Go easy on the sauce,” is ignored. The son vomits his way through every morning and bickers his way through every chat with his dad and grousing grandmother (Gemma Jones).
Johnny’s a sullen loner who brushes off his ex, Robyn (Patsy Ferran), who went off to her “posh college” but seems to know and sympathize with his secret. Rough and abrupt encounters in the feed stalls at the cattle auction are his speed. No talking.
“Want to get a pint, or somethin’?”
The Saxbys need a farmhand to help out, and the Romanian Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) was “the only bugger to apply.”
“Please don’t call me that.”
It’s a small, struggling farm, chickens, some sheep, “just a few beef cattle.” Gheorghe is handy with a sheep calving.
But as those cowboys showed us, way back on “Brokeback Mountain,” the lonesome range — even in Yorkshire — can make for unexpected bedfellows.
And spitting. But first, they’ve got to come to blows, right?
Actor turned writer-director Francis Lee revels in the grimy greys of Yorkshire in early spring, treeless hills covered with stone ruins and stone walls that need repair. The accents are thick, the mud is thicker and the romance could not be less romantic. At first.
“Is beautiful here, but lonely, yes?”
Closeups of the stone chipping and animal husbandry of the farm fascinate Lee almost as much as the rough, muddy and explicit horseplay of gay sex among these people in this setting. “God’s Own Country” is not for those squeamish about seeing the blood and guts and offal of farm work.
One touching moment comes when a lamb dies, and Gheorghe, with skill and care, skins it and puts its coat on an orphaned lamb so that the ewe of the dead one will feed her and care for her as her own.
As the two men bond and share their stories, we see Gheorghe’s sensitivity rub off on Johnny, even as we sense that this affair will be secretive, short and intense, but mostly short.
There’s a “Duckbutter” approach to the sex scenes, as if they’re new to the screen and everybody needs a primer on “this is how it goes.”
Secareanu has a smoldering presence, and you can see how lonely, bitter Johnny would fall for him even if he doesn’t know how to fall. But as most of us figure out in our teens and 20s, that “not knowing” how to fall in love thing is a ticking time bomb in any relationship. O’Connor (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) has a gawkiness that makes his reach for “unsophisticated” and “bumpkin” an easy one.
Hart and Jones’ crusty presence grounds the picture, and the unsentimental bluntness which they treat everything going on around them — they’re not blind, you know — gives the story a tender, deflated disappointment. There’s no future in any of it.
This melancholy hangs easily on this quiet, not-quite-romantic romance. Lee may rob his picture of some of its warmth in the process, but in not blinking in his approach to “real life,” he’s made a fine companion piece to the classic “kitchen sink” British melodramas of the ’60s and ’70s.
If there isn’t room for sentiment in this world, how can there be time for love?
MPAA Rating: unrated, explicit sex, adult situations, nudity,
Credits: Written and directed by Francis Lee. An Orion/Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:45