Queer cinema is having a moment. A year after Moonlight took home best picture at the Oscars, groundbreaking films like the Daniela Vega-starring A Fantastic Woman and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name both won major awards. But not every important queer film of the year made the Oscar ballot.
Few American viewers have heard of God’s Own Country, but the film, which received a BAFTA nomination for British film of the year and currently has an impressive 99% Rotten Tomatoes score, has been making waves abroad. It is now available in the U.S. for VOD streaming. Tracking the relationship between a Yorkshire farm worker named Johnny who drowns his sorrows in alcohol and a Romanian migrant, Gheorghe, who comes to work on the farm, God’s Own Country skewers everything from masculinity to anti-immigrant ideology. It also has something that few queer films do — a happy ending.
First-time director Francis Lee said he wrote the character of Johnny after studying strangers on buses and trains. “I like to watch people and I like to watch how people communicate and interact, namely on public transport but in lots of ways,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. He saw lots of vulnerable men, men who put up facades in order to survive: “I was just fascinated by men who at the core of them are very vulnerable but have a very tough exterior.”
Through Johnny, he wanted to explore that resistance to needing someone, to loving someone. Johnny doesn’t know how to open up to his dad, who is gravely ill, or to Gheorghe, who he is starting to fall for. “I don’t think we get a chance really to be vulnerable,” Lee said. “Particularly someone like Johnny… being told his entire life just to get on with it, and there’s no room for vulnerability in that, because it could become too overwhelming.”
The film is set just a few minutes from where Lee was raised and still lives today. Partly, it is based on his own experiences as a queer man growing up in rural Yorkshire. “I wrote this film about a community that I live in, that I am from, and that my family lived in,” he said.
Rural settings are often linked to a stereotypical notion of masculinity, but God’s Own Country flips that on its head. Lee uses a series of sex scenes, which oscillate between unfeeling and tender, dominant and submissive, to represent Johnny’s struggle with his masculinity: “He was never going to go around and say, ‘I feel like this.’… I knew I had to show [his arc] physically because no one was going to articulate it.”
To write the character of Gheorghe, a Romanian who is abused by British-born citizens, Lee pulled from the experiences of an immigrant friend he had made decades earlier. The hostility Gheorghe endures as an immigrant lingers throughout.
So, too, do social expectations about queerness. Even though neither character openly discusses his sexuality, the influence of the outside world is clear. In multiple climatic scenes, Johnny and Georghe refer to each other using the word “faggot” — a painful slur for many queer people that, in God’s Own Country, loses much of its sting. In fact, it takes on an oddly romantic edge.
Though the word has never been weaponized directly against him, Lee was well-aware of its power while writing the script. “When it’s said in the film, one or the other character laughs, and I quite like that rejuicing of the power,” he said. When Johnny or Georghe call each other that word, there is no hatred attached. “One of them calls one of them a ‘freak,’ and the other one calls the other one a ‘faggot,’ and to me that always felt like they were saying ‘I love you.'”
And then there’s the ending. Queer cinema has a storied history of tragic outcomes, a trope so common that it is difficult to watch a Call Me by Your Name or a God’s Own Country without at least partly anticipating a character death.
As it turns out, the ending is what audiences have responded to most, catapulting a low-budget indie film from an unknown director into theaters across the world. According to Lee, it’s one of the biggest commercial and critical successes of a debut U.K. filmmaker in years, and along with movies like Call Me by Your Name, Moonlight, Carol and A Fantastic Woman, it is proving that queer films aren’t niche films. “I think finally there’s some sense among the people with the money and the power that these stories do transcend, [that] lots of people do want to see them.”
Lee, who notes “I’m no cinephile,” didn’t write a hopeful ending between Johnny and Georghe to be deliberately subversive. “I didn’t realize that there is a trope of queer cinema to not have a happy ending,” he said. From his first draft of the script, he knew only that they deserved a hopeful finale. “It was only when people started to talk about it as bucking the trend, and how queer cinema generally has quite tragic endings, sad endings, unrequited love affairs, did I realize that this is slightly different.”
Lee paused. “You know why? It’s because when I was a kid growing up in Yorkshire in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, we didn’t really go to the cinema. The only access to film growing up was big American, Hollywood studio movies, and in the ‘80s there were all these amazing, big romances, heterosexual romances, that I totally loved, like An Officer and a Gentleman or Pretty Woman or Working Girl.”
In a sense, Lee wrote God’s Own Country as a tribute to those movies he grew up on — movies with dramatic and happy endings that have for so long only been accessible to straight cisgender characters. Moonlight and now God’s Own Country are among the few to have trailblazed the same path for queer movies. “In my head, I thought I was making An Officer and a Gentleman, and so I was like, ‘Yeah, so come in at the end and sweep him up and carry him off and they’re going to live a happily ever after,” he said. “It’s like a reference to big Hollywood romance.”
In the end, that’s really what it comes down to for Lee: “As a person, boringly, I’m a huge fan of hope.”