Let me tell you about the greatest movie you have probably not even heard of, the movie that flew under everyone’s radar while another entry into the same genre (Call Me By Your Name) became a critical darling. Let me tell you about Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017).
I make no understatement when I say it went unnoticed. It came and went with so little fanfare that Glenn Kenny, writing for rogerebert.com, called the protagonist’s grandmother his mother. The article is still up, the error rankling like a thorn in the back of my head. But I also need to talk about this film because it refuses to speak on principle. Not that the film is obtuse in its messaging or tone, just that silence, that gaping maw of something wrapped in nothing, is used excellently by Lee to tell a quiet tale of loneliness and companionship with the Pennines as the sole witness.
John Saxby is going through the motions on a Yorkshire farm with only his aging grandmother and ailing father for company. Within the first ten minutes of the film, the only words he speaks are, “We? No.” to a casual hookup asking for more. He also has to euthanize a dying newborn calf. He strokes a cow and tells her, “It’s just your Johnny Boy,” with all the certainty of a child put on the spot in front of its whole family. The casual distancing between “John” and “Johnny boy” is hard to miss.
With a point-of-view character so sickly and sullen, it is only natural that the presence of the handsome Romanian immigrant, come to help with the lambing season, intensifies tenfold. He is Gheorghe. He is also lonely. His arrival begins to undo the latches around the gloomy Saxby farm.
Gheorghe brings with him simple human delights, all the dearer to one constantly in motion such as himself. He is an immigrant, the weight of the world on his shoulders, a half-eaten bar of chocolate in his pocket, and a folded-up picture of a waterfall back home that he tacks to the wall of his meager accommodations at the Saxby farm. Gheorghe has a knack for colonizing the space he occupies with silent resolution. My favorite sequence in the entire film is an almost five-minute scene with no dialogue: a lamb dies upon birth. Gheorghe quietly skins it, dresses a healthy, motherless lamb in its hide, and leaves it with the bereft mother, who quickly accepts the lamb as her own. John and Gheorghe exchange a look. No words are spoken.
The film is littered with scenes like this, scenes that do nothing to further the plot. “We have a word for that in Japanese,” Hayao Miyazaki once told Roger Ebert, who was similarly enamored with the “gratuitous motion” in Ghibli movies. “It’s called ma. Emptiness.” It draws from ancient Buddhist philosophy, the gap between moments, the state of rest between ceaseless motion. “The people who make movies are scared of silence, so they want to paper and plaster it over,” Miyazaki says. God’s Own Country is Francis Lee’s ultimate ode to ma, to the silences that pervade human relationships.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than the moment post-coitus, where John and Gheorghe sit naked in the cold morning light; John talks about his mother like a man talks about the weather as he picks viciously at a scabbed-over gash in his palm. Next to him, Gheorghe listens, quietly stroking his leg, until he leans forward to lick the gash in John’s hand. The moment is disquietingly intimate, punctuated by the revulsion that accompanies all human union of the sort, heightened to its extreme because Lee uses words so very sparingly. Once language is removed from the situation, bodies and their bearers acquire an ancient animality, initiating an economy of grunts, groans, and yells. The human-ness of it all comes into sharp focus: here are two lonely men, watch what they do when pulled into each other’s orbit.
As the film reaches its denouement, John begins to speak more, acquiring the utmost eloquence when he sits down with his estranged father in the wake of his stroke and calmly but firmly explains that he needs to bring Gheorghe back. It is the first time you see John speaking without pause or nervous syncopation. There is conviction there that had been absent when he had stroked the cow, no longer any distancing between himself. One realizes here that John’s character arc had always been this internal linguistic battle. He emerges as the victor. It is heartening.
So why should you watch this quiet, at times dreary, often slow-paced film? I would say, watch it for its sensitivity, its ability to make you rethink your relationship with sound and its absence. Fans of John Cage will appreciate this film immensely, but even if you think 4’33 is an utter waste of time (and makes you uncomfortable), I think you will appreciate God’s Own Country for taking its time and slowing down to match your pace. It is a patient masterpiece, and do we not all deserve art that befriends and does not ask too much of us?
K.S. is an aspiring writer/poet with a green thumb, and an immense love for Rochester garbage plates. One of the aforementioned is a lie.