Beautiful, But Lonely: God's Own Country


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Please note: this article contains spoilers. 

Halfway through God's Own Country, the film's two protagonists pause in their work as they repair a boundary wall.  Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), a migrant worker from Romania, begins to talk about the farm he grew up on, whilst Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) warms his hands from the work.  Turning to regard the surrounding landscapes, Gheorghe remarks: 'it's beautiful here - but lonely, no?'  Johnny's silence is as close to confirmation as he will get.  In this moment, Gheorghe's description not only fits the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Pennines, but also serves as a summary encapsulation of Johnny Saxby himself. 

In thus connecting Johnny to the landscape of which he is undoubtedly a part, writer and director Francis Lee - for whom God's Own Country marks his feature film debut - sets Johnny within a tradition stretching back over nearly half a century's worth of British gay cinema.  It is a tradition that recalls the central character who appears across a number of key works upon which that cinema was founded: an isolated gay man who repels those around him, often through self-destructive behaviours, whilst also desperately searching for a fulfilling kind of affection in a world from which he himself feels alienated.  

Perhaps Johnny's earliest forebear in this tradition of beautiful lonely men is Daniel Hirsh, protagonist of Sunday Bloody Sunday (dir John Schlesinger, 1971).  Though more staunchly middle-class than those who follow him, Hirsh nevertheless betrays all the hallmarks of this character type, as he sublimates his desire for a closer hold on a mercurial partner behind a carefully constructed wall of social propriety and polite professionalism.  

Hirsh's place within a traditional Jewish community - surrounded by family members to whom he is not out, and who are fixated on finding him a heterosexual match - also serves as a precursor to the issues of culture and tribe that crop up repeatedly throughout British queer film history.  In the films which follow Sunday Bloody Sunday, this community is often represented as one which can be supportive in many ways, but which often leads their gay protagonists outside the group in order to find partners who don't ostensibly risk their becoming displaced within that community.  For them, finding partners completely separate from their communities becomes almost inevitable.

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Thus, Johnny, scion of the Yorkshire family whose farm he is born on and expected to continue the tradition of, finds himself falling for an outsider - one with whom his relationship is initially highly antagonistic (to say the least).  Here, the echo is of another Johnny, the ex-National Front member who ends up in a relationship with a British-Pakistani man in My Beautiful Laundrette (dir Stephen Frears, 1985).  That film's cross-community relationship would echo down throughout British queer cinema, cropping up again and again in works such as Young Soul Rebels (dir Isaac Julien, 1991) and the Glasgow-set Nina's Heavenly Delights (dir Pratibha Parmar, 2006).    

Yet, as Gheorghe's remarks on beautiful loneliness hint at, Johnny Saxby is not so much a representative of his community as he is in danger of becoming all but literally subsumed into his surroundings.  Long trapped within its confines, and unable to freely seek the love he yearns for, his behaviours by the beginning of the film have become increasingly sporadic and nihilistic.  And it is here, even in the film's first few moments - the long, meditative shot of the still and quiet Saxby farmhouse, violently interrupted by Johnny's vomiting after he returns home from the latest all-night binge-drinking bout - that God's Own Country recalls another remarkable British debut: The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983).  

The Trilogy's Robert Tucker, whose deeply troubled (and, in many ways, entirely irreconcilable) love-hate relationship with himself marks him as British queer cinema's archetypal beautiful lonely man, is undoubtedly Johnny Saxby's clearest antecedent.  Indeed, both characters seem to share the same domineering, ailing father figure.  In their brusque, violent isolation, these fathers serve as the template for the self-destructive behaviours that will indelibly mark their sons.  Yet, all the while, they manage to keep alive the sense of filial piety of that son for their father; in Davies' case, to the extent where that father - based faithfully upon his own - would crop up repeatedly, haunting his entire filmography.  

The key break here with Davies' work, though, is the gradual relenting of Johnny's father and, by extension, the traditions that he represents.  And, as he grows closer to Gheorghe, Johnny Saxby finally allows himself the vulnerabilities that he shares with his My Beautiful Laundrette namesake.  His decision to be himself rather than struggling in silence to fit his predetermined role is summed up in a single pithy declaration: 'I don't want to be a fuckup anymore' - a line that, sadly, neither Robert Tucker nor Daniel Hirsh would ever manage.  But it is Johnny's moment of redemption, one in which he finally turns his back on loneliness, towards becoming something far more beautiful: a human being, one with all the passions that entails.  

Marc David Jacobs 
freelance arts worker

1st September 2017

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