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.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

In Toni Erdmann, a combination of daddy issues, Bulgarian masks and false teeth creates a hilarious story about a father and daughter struggling to make a connection.

toni-erdmannGermany/Austria
4.5*

Director:
Maren Ade

Screenwriter:
Maren Ade

Director of Photography:
Patrick Orth

Running time: 160 minutes

Toni Erdmann is in fact Wilfried Conradi, an elderly German man who tries to reconnect with his high-strung consultant daughter when his beloved dog and longtime companion, Willi, passes away. But don’t let this description put you off because this is one of the funniest films you are ever likely to see.

A lot of the humour has to do with awkwardness, and our laughter is as much the result of nervousness on our part as the expression of wide-eyed astonishment that the actors can stay unfazed by the unexpected drama around them.

Wilfried (Peter Simonischek) is a primary school music teacher who clearly has never given up being a child himself. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, as a delivery man rings the doorbell to find Wilfried refusing to accept the delivery because his brother, “Toni”, to whom the package is addressed, has just been released from prison following a conviction for sending mail bombs. Moments later, Toni, with buckteeth and a very bad hairpiece, arrives to sign for the package, whose content we get to see only a few scenes later.

In the meantime, the stage is set for what would otherwise be a dour domestic drama examining the difficulty of reconnecting with one’s child as an adult. The child, in this case, is the 30-something Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is doing consulting work for an oil company in Bucharest and spends every moment of her birthday party talking (or pretending to talk) on the phone with business clients. She clearly has little patience for her the antics of her father, who arrives at the party made up to look like a zombie.

But then, something very mundane happens, and it changes everything. In an underplayed but devastating ellipsis, Wilfried’s dog dies in the middle of the night. The following morning, he ups and flies off to Bucharest, because besides him knowing next to nothing about Ines’s life, he now appreciates that this relationship should be cherished as long as they are both around to do so. The problem, admittedly, is that his daughter has neither the time nor the inclination nor, frankly, the social experience to extend a helping hand to her father and comfort him during this time of crisis.

And yet, from the moment he bursts into her carefully preserved house of cards in Bucharest, even though they are basically strangers to each other, and Wilfried’s presence is always on the verge of upending a fragile business deal, they cannot (and we certainly don’t want them to) let go of each other. Ines is so tense she looks like she is always about to have a nosebleed, and yet father, the ultimate foil, sits down on whoopee cushions in front of her colleagues and tells a major client he has decided to hire someone to play his daughter at home because Ines never visits.

Toni is an alter ago, but we get to know him much better than we do Wilfried, and that is the genius behind the film and behind Wilfried’s approach to Ines: These two may be father and daughter, but for whatever reason there is no way for them to relate to each other in the present, and therefore, the best alternative is for them to relate to each other as Toni and Ines. The resulting chemistry, with all its attendant reactions, is volatile but produces a combination so beautiful and rare we might as well be dealing with successful alchemy.

While some may balk at the running time, there is little drag, except for one extended car-bound conversation between Ines and her colleagues that could have been trimmed significantly. Whatever mystery Toni Erdmann has is tied to our awareness – and eventually, our giddy expectation – that the man with the bad wig on his head and the false teeth in his mouth may reappear at any moment.

All of a sudden, in the film’s final act, all the random parts suddenly unify in two unexpectedly brilliant scenes. The first is a musical number; the second, which involves a Bulgarian mask of sorts, flips the script with a scene that had the entire audience in stitches for a full uninterrupted five-minute stretch. Even more impressive is that this latter scene is punctuated by a stunningly poignant, emotionally devastating and indisputably unique catharsis.

The film may be on the long side, but its message is clear: Life is short, so make the most of it, because laugh and cherishing those close to us is a much better use of our time than pretending to be on a phone call to avoid speaking to those who love us and around whom we can be ourselves.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.