Sunday, May 17, 2020

Our May Sunday corner With Lee Liberman -- GOD'S OWN COUNTRY: The Grace of Kindness

This post is written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

On 5/20/20, IndieWire reported on the censorship of Francis Lee’s film and it has already been pulled from the Amazon Prime free lineup. The original is still available to rent or buy from Amazon. Lee writes below that the culprit was Goldwyn Films not Prime Video: 

 “After investigation, ‘God’s Own Country’ was not censored by Prime Video (Amazon USA) but by the US distributor Goldwyn Films who butchered the streaming version without consultation to get more ‘revenue.’ Prime Video were incredibly supportive in rectifying. The rental version of ‘God’s Own Country’ on Prime Video is the correct version of my film. I would like to thank Amazon Prime for being supportive and I would caution any filmmaker of working with the aforementioned ‘distributor.’  

Thank you everyone for all your support.”

We are in present-day Yorkshire, northern England, during the sheep foaling season of early spring, where a single day will dispense snow, wind, sun, and rain that slices raw through the body, on a rural sheep farm that struggles for survival on the moor. (Yorkshire, in the shadow of the Pennines mountains, has been affectionately called ‘God’s Own County’ for hundreds of years.)

Actor-turned-writer-director Francis Lee (at left) grew up on these moors and filmed his first full-length feature (2017) here near his birthplace. It has been lauded in England (nominated for BAFTA film of the year), hugely popular in Europe, scored 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and prized at many film festivals, but passed over by the Oscars. See it now via Amazon to get lost in its brutal magic.

The solitary Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor, below: The Crown, Only You), lives with his ailing father Martin (the self-effacing, nuanced, wonderful Ian Hart, two photos below, left: Harry Potter, The Last Kingdom) and grandmother (enduring actress, Gemma Jones, two photos below, right: Bridget Jones' Diary, Gentleman Jack) — the three tasked with the relentless demands of their farm.

Johnny‘s classmates are in college, but he grumpily carries on with the burdens of animal husbandry and crumbling stone walls, chided by his father and Nan ( below). He doesn’t think or let himself feel; he’s so well-defended he comes off as a dolt, working vacantly, having furtive sex at the pub, home to vomit the nightly binge, sleep, rinse, and repeat.

Johnny isn’t really love-starved (although his mother left the farm when he was a child), rather this family is starved of emotional intelligence and expression. They bark and grunt at each other, admonish and never affirm — the trio as dour as the climate. Martin’s masculinity is draining away as he struggles with mobility and worry, Nan perpetually scolds, and Johnny wears his defenses like a hair shirt— ‘I’m a fuck-up’.

Into this scene is imported a change agent, an immigrant farm worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu, above, right, up-and-coming Romanian actor from PBS’s Baptiste and the lead in Romola Garai’s new Amulet, opening July 2020), hired to replace Martin’s labor during the busy lambing season. Gheorghe is Romanian like the actor, his story arc quietly invoking the plight of ubiquitous immigrant outsider. He laments the abandonment of his home country by its youth, but unlike Johnny, his glass is half-full. He is intuitively in harmony with the rhythms of the farm and models to Johnny how to function and survive in a demanding landscape.

A runt that would have been abandoned at birth (above), is brought back to life with Gheorghe’s ministrations; he clothes it in the skin of an already dead lamb (rear of picture), coat-sweater-like.

Then he nurtures it until the mother takes it back. He uses disinfectant on animals’ injuries, assesses Johnny’s bruised hands, and is proactive about repairing the farm’s boundary wall, leaving Johnny perplexed and unnerved by Gheorghe’s instinctive good will.

Johnny’s uncomprehending reaction is to goad him, calling him ‘gyp’ (gypsy), until Gheorghe erupts furiously and pins him to the ground.

With a combination of limit-setting and kindness, Gheorghe makes a dent in the hollow affect of the three Saxby’s — especially Johnny’s, who begins to take on the running of the farm with new purpose and even a little good will.

It’s a bit of a fairy tale, a Cinderella story in which kindness is the transforming gift, but here is the less ordinary: This is a romance between two men with a happy ending. There’s no rejection by family, no death from AIDS or unrequited love — just the prospect that two people might make something more permanent of a transcient hookup and live ever after— well, if not happily, then giving it a go. It’s as though films about gay characters have begun, under Francis Lee’s stewardship, to catch up with old-style Hollywood romance where the couple walks off into the sunset — no problem. The two call each other ‘faggot’ affectionately, investing the slur with the caring between them.

Led by its art-makers, is our era beginning to move past the rejection of gay life and embrace at least a modicum of civility? Mr. Lee is chipping away at the ice. For all its parts combined, his movie has struck a note of grace in which God’s Own Country is both gorgeous Yorkshire and rich subject matter to a mainstream audience that is being dragged kicking and screaming into a more nuanced present. This is a film about two people coming to terms with emotions and environment. It features two young gay characters, but the truth of their relationship, and of the family including father and grandmother, is more universal — it is about the transformative nature of kindness and self-acceptance.

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