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.

Rams (2015)

Two elderly, taciturn sheep farmers who are also brothers have to work together in the face of a plague that hits their remote valley in northern Iceland.

hrutar-ramsIceland
4*

Director:
Grímur Hákonarson
Screenwriter:
Grímur Hákonarson
Director of Photography:
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Hrútar

The first scene of Rams, a film from Iceland that falls squarely within the country’s canon of beautiful and always-eccentric films of late, tells it all: In a valley called Bárðardalur, in the north Icelandic countryside, Gudmundur (“Gummi”), an old, bearded farmer, finds a ram among his sheep that is not his. It has clearly strayed across the fence that separates his flock from that of his neighbour. He calls one of them by name, strokes its face and then proceeds to take a ram into his neighbour’s house in silent protest at the transgression that occurred.

The neighbour turns out to be his brother, the similarly bearded, equally aged Kristinn (“Kiddi”). The two have not spoken for 40 years, and although the reason for this is never explicitly stated, the resentment from both sides is clear as day. Their tense silence could very well have to do with the fact that Gummi’s father did not want Kiddi to inherit the farm, but he has stayed on because their mother insisted on it.

They are also big rivals, as their respective flocks share an esteemed bloodline, and at this year’s edition of the annual competition, Kiddi’s ram prevails by half a point over Gummi’s prized tup. Gummi is naturally crestfallen, but after closer inspection, he comes to believe that Kiddi’s ram, and therefore his flock and all other flocks in the area, might be suffering from scrapie, which would be fatal to both the sheep and the entire valley’s livelihood.

It is to be expected that the two brothers, facing the worst crisis in their extensive time on this Earth, will be pushed together to tackle this problem, but their distrust and general dislike of each other certainly makes this a protacted call to collaboration, whence the film’s running but subtle comedy. Despite their differences – Gummi is the serious one, while Kiddi is prone to hit the bottle on frequent occasions and more likely to behave like a fool – they are also dedicated to their sheep, which for these two lifelong bachelors are just like their own flesh and blood. When tragedy strikes their animals, it is like they see their own bloodline vanish in front of their eyes.

Their attachment to the animals also extends into a very warm relationship with Kiddi’s sheepdog, Sómi, which steals every scene in which he appears. Gummi uses him as a carrier pigeon to deliver handwritten messages to his brother whenever the rare occasion arises for them to communicate, and Sómi is almost giddy with anticipation to oblige.

This anthropomorphism is the logical extension of the affection afforded to the ovine creatures, and screenwriter-director Grímur Hákonarson’s decision to imbue his animals with just as much humanity as his two-legged characters adds enormous warmth to the film. And warmth is certainly welcome in this desolate valley that has been hit by disease and remains exposed to the rigours of the island’s thick white winters. The final scenes, set during a blizzard unleashed on the surroundings of Gummi and Kiddi’s farm, is particularly harsh, and at a screening I attended the wailing gusts of wind ont he soundtrack literally caused the ground in the theatre to vibrate. 

As a final point, even though it does not shed much light on our interpretation of the film, it is worth pointing out that the title can equally refer to the two brothers. The men’s interaction and communication at the very end are intimate and more related to instinct than purely rational thought.

Rams is about silence and a secret shared with a combination of naughty subversion of the rules and a determined desire to uphold to the status quo, even when the course of life cannot be turned back, and life itself can barely be resurrected. The two main characters, offbeat as they are, have affection for their animals and even for each other, and their presence in the story brings out both the comedy and the drama of the unexpected situation they are confronted with.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015