By Harper Wellman
I have two unrevolutionary mantras in life. While the generic nature of mantras leaves them open to many applications and interpretations, the two ring clear now more than ever.
The first is “This, too, shall pass.” I tell myself this whenever I find myself in an unwanted place or situation. The second, related or contradictory depending on your perspective, is “Life is cyclical.” Life has proven this to me time and time again, not just through physics but also through lived experiences. Everything will change, but we’ll also find ourselves in well-known situations. We might find ourselves surrounded by familiar people, going through habitual spaces, or maybe confronting an ongoing struggle. Simultaneously, events and experiences have changed our perspectives.
These ideas are explored through the character development and themes in 2017’s God’s Own Country, written and directed by Francis Lee and starring Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu. Receiving rave reviews upon its release, aspects that could have been the downfall for the film work brilliantly well when combined, and the themes raised seem oddly apt for our current social climate. While we have been blessed with so much queer content during the pandemic (Priyanka for Prime Minister!), watching God’s Own Country prompted me to realize the cycles we all find ourselves in, and the one I was in on a micro level.
After years of having access to communities of my choice and my creation, public safety saw the shuttering of most gay bars, art galleries and museums, and isolation from friends and chosen family. Quite quickly, the communities I relied on were just as inaccessible as when I was shuttered in the closet. As I had done then, I turned to a familiar solution that had provided me with my first sense of queer community—the media.
Growing up, I was lucky. White, cis-gendered gay men, like myself, were an easy way for companies to pinkwash their content without much thought or representation given to any of the intersections of our LGBTQ2+ community. I fell for it. There were Jake & Karen, the OG Fab Five, and side characters in teen movies or sitcoms. Then, just as I was entering middle school, I discovered Queer as Folk.
The show, however problematic, rocked my world at the time. There were gay white people, living their gay white lives! The characters’ experiences were just as rich and complex as the lives of the Ally McBeal characters that I loved so much. I truly felt like I was seeing a representation of queer people like myself for the first time. Since, queer representation has expanded: Moonlight, Orange Is The New Black, and Special, to name a few, show that queer experiences are intersectional and dynamic. More people can see themselves represented in mainstream media, just as I had the privilege of having when I was younger. God’s Own Country is lacking in the diversity department but does offer a portrayal of white cis-male queerness that is unexpected and subverts many mainstream stereotypes.
The plot beats in God’s Own Country are relatively standard: A man, Johnny (O’Connor), struggles with society and familial expectations. Enter transient love interest Gheorghe (Secareanu). Initial resistance. Togetherness. Complication. Realization. This is a well-known dance.
At first glance, the formulaic story combined with heavy-handed metaphors and sometimes shaky cinematography shouldn’t work well, yet, these elements combine in a way that allows the character development to take center stage.
Our protagonist starts off drunk, racist, scared of intimacy and has a terrible relationship with his parents. By final credits, he has decided to drink less, loves the object of his racism (can we not?), and develops a better relationship with his family. These transformations are handled with subtlety and grace and a realistic sense of ambiguity. Johnny reaches for a beer but haunted by mistakes, decides against it. Do we get the sense that Johnny will never drink again? No, but we see the desire and effort of Johnny to be a better person. Similar evolutionary moments involve Johnny’s relationships with both his father and the farm animals, telling of Johnny’s gradual emotional growth.
Likewise, Johnny’s parents (played by Gemma Jones and Ian Hart) develop throughout the film. They grow to accept Johnny’s choice in Gheorghe as a partner as they see Johnny change for the better due to his company. Interestingly, neither parent is ever overtly homophobic in the film. If anything, they have more of a problem with Johnny’s drinking and lack of responsibility than his sexuality. Once again, this is a refreshing change in an onscreen adult/queer child relationship, especially in the development between Johnny and his father. By not focusing on such queer-specific moments, the space in the film is able to be filled with more interesting moments of their relationship; the intimate, universal, and relatable moments.
Unfortunately, Gheorghe, the love interest, has the weakest arc in the film. He is kind from the start, and if anything, his kindness is disseminated throughout his new community and other characters. We learn little about his back story, and he seems, like so many pixie dream girls before him, there mostly for Johnny’s development. Gheorghe shines in one scene when he physically confronts Johnny over his racism. They get into a brawl, inevitably ending with thick sexual tension between the two. We can interpret Johnny’s racism as a tool for masking his attraction for Gheorghe. Still, it feels like the closeted playground bully attacking the proudly out kid, something that is not the case of Johnny’s white partners in the film. These racist tropes are a low point for the film and seem especially tiresome in 2020.
With these shortcomings in mind, God’s Own Country still offers a refreshing representation of queer men. They filled few gay stereotypes (I could do without the promiscuity) but instead presented two capable and rugged men, riding quads, building fences, and helping birth animals. This type of representation was well-received in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain; however, what makes GOC’s portrayal refreshing, is that there is no struggle with sexuality. Yes, Johnny struggles with intimacy and societal expectations, but he is cocksure of his sexuality. Gheorghe, likewise, accepts his attractions to men. There is no cheating on women or even hiding their sexuality from the rural community, which works to undermine the long-held prejudice that members of the LGBTQ2S+ are inherently deceptive or untrustworthy. It also seems more accurate to outness today and how our community is fighting for all queer experiences to be recognized, not just those that appease our heteronormative overlords. For me, watching another coming out story on film is comparable to watching Batman’s origin story again on film: I’ll do it, but I’d like his relationship with Robin explored more.
Through the various characters’ development, some strong themes arise, directly reflecting issues many of us are facing today. Beyond the universal theme of unfulfilled parental expectations (especially true in LGBTQ2S+ communities), there is the theme of familial responsibility. While initially flippant about these responsibilities, as his father’s health descends, Johnny embraces his duty to care for his parents, both directly with physical assistance and indirectly by caring for their legacy, the family farm. We have realized a societal duty to protect our elderly during the ongoing pandemic, whatever form that may take, and embracing it sooner than later can help ease our older community members’ suffering.
The idea of stuckness was strong in the film as well, something we can all relate to during this pandemic holding pattern and as queer people. We may have felt stuck in the closet, in a town, or in a body. Even though Johnny initially feels stuck, his perspective is altered by embracing the unexpected changes life tosses at him. Through a new lens, Johnny can embrace the responsibilities that burdened him before. Each time we revisit a situation, we carry with us new tools and insights to better navigate the circumstances. As many of us find ourselves in unexpected cycles, whether that by living with parents or unemployment, at a time when major life changes seem on hold, it is worthwhile to focus on more immediate and tangible changes.
A final theme that spoke to our current situation is that of community. By the end of the film, Johnny has come out of an isolation of sorts by embracing what community is available to him—his family—while creating a new sense of community through his relationship with Gheorghe. This pandemic imposed isolation has prompted many of us to embrace what community we have and seek new ways of connecting. As queer people, we have been in this isolation before, but we have new tools, knowledge, and relationships to help us through this time.
While Johnny’s cycles of stuckness, community and responsibility play out on a small scale, his journey in God’s Own Country speaks to a 2020 audience, perhaps more so than upon release in 2017, on a large scale. Pandemics, social uprisings, and volatile politics – we have been here before, and we’ll be here again. With each time around, however, we have the ability to better our actions and reactions and, hopefully, achieve something better than before.
And just remember, this, too, shall pass.