I am sure that this film will be compared to Brokeback Mountain. While flattering at first glance it is selling this British film short as it has its own identity. It is inevitable that the two films will be compared. They are both about men coming to terms with their sexuality amidst a rough and tumble outdoor environment.
While struggling with sexual identity is tough enough on its own having to come to terms with it in a rural environment makes things all much more tougher. Tougher because of the lack of variety amongst the people who live there and the isolation. There is no sense of community and as such most of the time anyone who is “different” (gay or an immigrant) tries to remain invisible.
The film centers around the two male leads with their burgeoning relationship having to be believable. There is onscreen chemistry to burn between Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu. Besides the chemistry what the two actors have going for them is their honesty and fearlessness. Neither has an easy role, but they bravely do everything asked of them including some rather intimate sex scenes. More than that they bring to the screen two very realistic characters (we all know someone like the two of them) that are easy to connect with. These are not two cardboard cutout characters though.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor – Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program) lives in the countryside of Yorkshire. He is a young man who is saddled with the running of his family’s cattle and sheep farm. It is a lonely life for him. It does not seem like he has any friends and spends a lot of his free time going to the pub to get drunk. Every morning seems to begin with him getting sick from the overdrinking he did the night before.
Having to take care of the running of the farm because his father (Ian Hart – Enemy of the State, Michael Collins) is not physically able. Grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones – Sense and Sensibility, Bridget Jones’s Diary) tries to help out where she can, but with lambing season around the corner some help is needed. The family hires Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), an experienced farmhand, to help for the short term.
Though Johnny seemingly has had many random same sex hook ups; it is apparent that he has not come to terms with his sexuality. Once Gheorghe arrives that all changes. Soon things become intense and, at first, confusing for Johnny.
A lot is done here without much dialogue. Precious little is said; talking does not happen just to film air time. Yet a lot is done. Emotionally charged and genuine feeling. It deals with sexuality, family relations (father/son), rural isolation, and the hard work involved in farming. This is more than a gay film.
Rookie director (and screenwriter) Francis Lee shows a mature and steady hand in everything he does. He keeps most everything understated allowing the performances of his two leads to shine through. It is a masterful, if quiet, first film. Sensitivity abounds. Yes, there are some clichés, but not too many that it becomes ridiculous. Greatly aided by his cinematographer Joshua James Richards (Songs My Brother Taught Me, The Rider), who lenses the Yorkshire countryside in all its sparse beauty. Still the landscape looks luminous and rich.
Most interesting, for me, was how Lee is very organic in his handling of the sex that happens. It is also rather different from other films of the type. There is plenty of nuance going on.