The newly released film, God’s Own Country, tackles the themes of equal love, the persecution of migrant workers, and admiration for nature. Despite all the accolades the film has already received, there is one issue that the heartfelt love-story unwittingly fails to avoid—exoticisation of the Other.
On Thursday 16 November, Side by Side LGBT Film Festival opened with a screening of the award-winning British drama, God’s Own Country, which received a standing ovation and an extremely positive response from the festival’s jury.
The film is a debut feature for director Francis Lee, and has already won multiple international awards at festivals including the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and Sundance. It received impressive reviews from critics and journalists and holds high approval ratings among LGBTQ and immigration activists. The Guardian described it as “a very British love story” and gave it four stars out of five; the BBC called it “captivating”; “A dig into the nature of humanity,” wrote Terri White in the Empire; and Ed Potton, writing in The Times, described it as “a Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain”.
Anyone who watched and loved the 2005 neo-Western romance, Brokeback Mountain, will relate to Lee’s description of the film as a ‘Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain’. Johnny lives on a family farm with his father, who is recovering from stroke, and his granny, who has lost hope in Johnny’s capacity to take control of the farm and take care of his family to be the ‘Man’ he needs to be. Frustrated with life and left alone by a friend who goes off to college, Johnny resorts to binge drinking and casual meaningless sex. The situation remains unchanged until a young attractive Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe, arrives, on the request of Johnny’s father, to help out on the farm. Gheorghe is talented, determined, and an expert at farming: he takes care of the cows and sheep, makes goat cheese that they had never heard of, cooks, builds new walls—indeed, it seems that Gheorghe has come to the rescue! He single-handedly gives the dying farm a new life with his Eastern charm, new skills, and contentment. Johnny on the other hand, the numb and sceptical boy that he is, treats him with disrespect and often refers to him as a “gypsy”. In fact, throughout the film, nobody defends Gheorghe when is bullied, in turn, by the father, the granny, the bartender, or the racist white man at the local pub—not even Johnny himself when they fall in love.
Gheorghe is not a character, but an image—an image of an exotic saviour of the lost ‘Western soul’.
Pretty galling, you would think? Astonishingly, Johnny’s behaviour, especially his use of the “gypsy” slur, sexually arouses Gheorghe and leads to them engaging in rough sex in the middle of nature. With Gheorghe’s countless one-sided efforts of showing affection, their relationship takes a more playful, natural form as the film progresses. Many critics have noted the rawness of the nature scenes in the film and how the poetic cinematography parallels the natural relationship between the two homosexual men. Yet, one can think of it differently: if not nature, then where? What other location is contextless enough to create the foundation of love between a Romanian worker and his young British lover? On the other hand, the character of Gheorghe, as perfect, supportive, and sensual as he is, is completely contextless. “In my country, springs are very beautiful”—that is the most we hear about his story. The beauty of a land far far away! Gheorghe is not a character, but an image—an image of an exotic saviour of the lost ‘Western soul’.
Perhaps this intrudes on the ubiquitous celebration of the film, and forgive me for still asking, but what if the film wasn’t about a gay couple, and what if one participant of the relationship wasn’t a migrant? Would anyone still consider the ending of the film ‘artistic’? Desperately missing Gheorghe when he leaves Yorkshire, Johnny realises that he cannot handle the farm work without him. The shallow final dialogue between the protagonists sounds like an extract from a Hollywood romantic comedy. One asks for forgiveness and the other one forgives almost instantly.
It seems that Francis Lee unwittingly creates a patronizing dichotomy of West versus Other in God’s Own Country. The film’s message of ‘hope’ sounds utterly hopeless, as it sensationally combines the hottest topics of our time: LGBTQ rights, migrant rights, and reconnecting to the land. Don’t we just love our progressive minds too much sometimes?
*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Prospekt Magazine.