God’s Own Country (2017)

God’s Own Country borrows so much from Ang Lee’s famous cowboy romance it should have been titled “Brokeback on the Moors”.

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

Two strapping young lads herding sheep by day and making love to each other one night out in the field? Check. Do we see spit being used instead of lube? Yes. Is there an awkward silence the next morning? Absolutely. Does the one deliberately look in front of him while the other changes his underwear in the background? That, too. And is there evident yearning when one of them smells a piece of clothing left behind by the one who is no longer there? Yes, even that.

God’s Own Country, an often assured feature-film début by British director Francis Lee, borrows whole-cloth from Brokeback Mountain without adding much of its own, although the story has been altered slightly for the sake of updating and transposing Ang Lee’s landmark 2005 film to the grittier moors of the English countryside.

The central character here is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a farm boy barely out of his teens, whom we first lay eyes on late one night when he is throwing up in the toilet bowl of his parents’ farmhouse in Yorkshire. The next morning, we learn this is a regular occurrence, and we soon realise why: In this small farming community, being gay is not yet entirely acceptable, and even though Johnny has frequent encounters (penetration, never kissing) with whoever locks eyes with him at the bar or an auction, the idea of a relationship with a man is a foreign concept to him.

His father has suffered a stroke and realises his son is not up to the job of taking on his role on the farm. Thus, a (presumably) low-paying position as a temporary farmhand opens up, and this is when a brooding young Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, who looks like he could be Oscar Isaac’s brother) arrives on the scene, not without his own baggage. Things develop more or less as we expect, although these two characters are much more secure in their sexuality than Jack and Ennis the cowboys, their famous fictional counterparts from the early 2000s, who were admittedly a product of their time.

Lee’s handling of the relationship is very sensitive at the outset, and the two characters complement each other in just the right way: the immature Johnny, whose idea of the world only extends as far as the closest pub, has had plenty of sexual encounters but no intimacy, while Gheorghe, who has travelled to the United Kingdom on his own and seems much wiser about the ways of the world, takes on the role of both lover and father to the slightly awkward Englishman. The scene in which the two finally kiss, after much reluctance from Johnny, is paced just right and a striking testament to Gheorghe’s patience and tenderness.

Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are an absolute travesty – the kind of fairytale development that lessens the film’s thoughtfulness and is wholly at odds with the rest of the plot. It feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought for the sake of greater viewer satisfaction and commercial success, but the resolution to the climax’s dramatic complication is a myopic idea of romance that one character is too callow to deserve and the other is too good to concede.

The ending is a big disappointment, but the rest of the film does a good job of making the rough contours of a relationship seem less sharp-edged.

All in all, while the meaning of its title remains an enigma, God’s Own Country is mostly a compelling reworking of a tale we have seen before, and the reason lies primarily with the small group of very committed actors. Besides O’Connor and Secăreanu, Ian Hart as Johnny’s stern but paternal father and Gemma Jones as the devoted grandmother both warm our hearts with their candid but caring interactions with Johnny.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

The Endless River (2015)

A brutal farm murder leads to more questions than answers in third film by South Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary director, which stubbornly carves out its own path

The Endless RiverSouth Africa
3*

Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Chris Lotz

Running time: 110 minutes

Don’t let the opening credits fool you: Despite the balmy, sunset-swept imagery – replete with cloud-stained skies of twilight and golden fields of wheat – that greets the viewer of The Endless River at the outset, the mood shifts very quickly as we witness a man’s release from prison, the murder of an innocent family and the two central characters’ near-futile search for post-traumatic meaning.

Oliver Hermanus’s third film is nothing if not ambitious: Using the tragedy of a farm murder to propel the narrative forward, this is simultaneously an examination of one man’s attempts to cope with his grief, a whodunnit and a woman’s yearning for affection. However, the presentation becomes more and more fragmented and ellipses ever more frequent as the film reaches a conclusion that is even more open-ended than that of the director’s previous film, Beauty (Skoonheid). The director is firmly in control, but as both content and meaning become elusive, dependent on that which is unseen (or rather, deliberately concealed), most viewers are unlikely to remain as attached to the material and the characters as they are at the outset.

The title nominally refers to the location, the small town of Riviersonderend in South Africa’s Western Cape, even though none of the characters ever utters the name. In this rural setting, we find Percy Solomons, a young man who has just been released after four years in prison. His petite wife, Tiny, who works as a waitress at a local diner, is optimistic about their future together, although her mother, whose house the three of them share with each other, openly shares her doubts around the breakfast table. The fabulous Denise Newman plays the mother, Mona, who is as proud and devoted to her child as was the case with the title character in Hermanus’s stunning début feature, Shirley Adams, which she also portrayed; unfortunately, she is sidelined here halfway through the film.

Into this uncertainty tumbles Gilles Estève, a Frenchman with a murky past (a prominent ink stain on his thumb is never explained) who moved into a farmhouse just outside town about a year ago, although oddly enough he has not made any acquaintances. The film’s first major turning point is the murder of Gilles’s two young boys, and the murder and rape of his wife. This violent turn in the narrative only has extradiegetic sound in the form of Braam du Toit’s lilting score as a counterpoint to the horrific events on-screen. But while this artistic choice (not to mention the scene’s graceful camera moves) may appear peculiar at first, the purpose quickly becomes clear as the director’s intention is not so much to portray brutal realism as it is to attune us to the emotional journeys on which Gilles and Tiny embark.

Visually much less self-conscious than Hermanus’s previous film, which relied heavily on static or long takes, The Endless River has one robustly cinematic moment, namely the unbroken take in which we move ever closer to Percy as he makes up his mind whether to participate in a crime. Comparable to the opening shot of Beauty and a similar, albeit static, shot in Shirley Adams (although all three shots are strikingly different in their own ways, a variation for which the director deserves substantial praise), this kind of moment perfectly uses the visuals to unite the viewer with the character’s frame of mind in an unusual yet unostentatious way.

The strands of the film with which the director weaves his narrative are often strong but frayed at the tips, as we frequently have to guess how fundamental parts of the story develop. While this strategy of withholding crucial information from the viewer can help focus our attention and keep our minds active, it becomes annoying in the final act, when we seem to skip from one awkward dinner to the next while the action in between – which is of enormous importance in order to understand the film’s key relationship – is almost entirely left out of the film.

What hurts The Endless River even more, however, is the sense that Gilles, while visibly enraged at the police force’s seeming inability to solve the homicide, never thinks of his family beyond the fact of their murder. He shuts his past completely out of his mind to the point that he even refuses to look at a list of items taken from his home after it has been burgled. This may very well be his way of coping with loss, but there is not even one crack in this façade, which makes for a dramatically uninteresting character arc.

And yet, it is a testament to Hermanus’s talent as a filmmaker that we have the impression throughout – with the exception of that quick succession of homogeneous dinner scenes in the third act – that he is keeping a tight rein on the presentation of his material. Everything feels like it belongs to the same story, although, as mentioned above, one can fault him for not providing enough of the story to fill in the gaps that are as vast as the vistas in the opening credits sequence.

The film is like a jigsaw puzzle that we start constructing but realise halfway through that with every piece we place, another disappears from the box altogether. Things will likely make slightly more sense on a second viewing, but there is a palpable, perverse decision on the part of the filmmaker not to meet the viewer’s expectations.

Hermanus does not make it easy on the viewer. Instead of coming together, the story appears to unravel more and more until we realise this is a road trip that will flow forever, reaching the sea somewhere far into the future and definitely happening – like so much else we want to know about this story – offscreen. Some may find this refreshing, but given the early development of the story, most are likely to regard it as unnecessarily defiant.