As we slowly trudge into October and the last quarter of 2017, I find myself in analytical mood. What have been the best films of the year? I’ve seen a lot. Getting on for 200 at the end of September, which won’t be as many as an indentured national newspaper critic, but it’s enough to get a clear view, especially with all the smaller, independent, arthouse and foreign-language pictured that enhance my life. But I’m delighted to find that UK films have given me a particular thrill this year, many of them debuts. Two of them about farming.
Warming to my theme, let’s stick with films made by British filmmakers. These are not debuts, but they all speak of the fertility of homegrown writers and directors: Free Fire, the latest formal provocation by Ben Wheatley, struck me as personal and audacious; Terence Davies, a veteran, produced arguably his best work, A Quiet Passion; Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver felt like a gift to the world and a personal triumph; Roger Michell (South African-born but works here) bounced back with My Cousin Rachel, and Mick Jackson produced Denial, a strong, sure, wordy David Hare-adapted piece from another veteran long since thought lost to Hollywood. At the other end of the career scale, thrilling, idiosyncractic, varied debuts came from William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Alice Lowe (Prevenge), Gareth Tunley (The Ghoul), Mark Gill (England is Mine) and Christine Frantz (Bunch of Kunst). Welsh documentarian Jonny Owen’s Don’t Take Me Home, his second film, also showed talent, while Alex Barrett’s first feature-length doc London Symphony established his, and Daniel Draper’s Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast was clearly a labour of love.
The view, you have to admit, is pretty bracing. Which takes us to Yorkshire.
The snapshot above was taken by director Francis Lee while shooting his debut, a deeply personal love story God’s Own Country. Actually, it’s his own country. His debut feature is based on his own life, brought up a family farm and forced to decide: should he stay or should he go? The story is built, though, around a gay male love affair, when a Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is hired to help farmer’s son Johnny (Josh O’Connor – best known to me as one of ITV’s The Durrells) when his father (Ian Hart) is disabled. It’s shot – beautifully, by Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards – around Keighley, and the very real lambing scenes were on the director’s father’s farm. It’s gathering laurels apace – Sundance, Berlin, Edinburgh – and ploughing its own critical furrow wherever it’s shown. (See if it’s still showing near you here.)
It’s my film of the year so far. A beneficiary of its setting, visually and metaphorically, it’s a small-scale story set against boundless fields and skies whose intimacy is twofold: it’s based on Lee’s own experience, and it depicts the eventual intimacy of two men. Some early devotees of the film thumbnailed it as Brokeback Mountain transposed to the Dales, but this comparison quickly sputters out, like a quad bike out of petrol. Johnny isn’t explicitly closeted – he enjoys hook-ups at the only pub for miles and his female friend (Patsy Ferron, recently seen in Jamestown on Sky) knows – but if his taciturn father knows, he would rather die than face up to it, and if his grandmother (Gemma Jones) keeps her own counsel.
It’s not a “gay” film in the militant sense. The two men’s relationship is far more than about sex, and they spend most of their time alone together, repairing a dry stone wall or involved in animal husbandry for days at a time, sleeping in sleeping bags in a remote shed, living on nothing but Pot Noodles and cans of beer. They are free to do whatever it is they want to do, with no disapproving eyes on them. The problem is not “society”. (Indeed, Gheorghe is the one who’s not welcome at the pub because of his ethnicity. At least Johnny is “from round these parts” – his transgressions are hidden from the eyes of bar-stool bigots.) Before Gheorghe’s arrival – his “welcome” is almost comically bluff, as Johnny shows him his shitty caravan and slams the door shut – Johnny is already at a crossroads about his future and his family, and dealing with it by self-medicating. The unexpected promise of a loving same-sex relationship is clearly more than he can deal with, emotionally.
The Levelling (above) is an approximate and unintended companion to God’s Own Country in terms of its agricultural setting but also its generational conflict. In the former, daughter Ellie Kendrick, who left to qualify as a vet, returns temporarily to the family farm to bury her brother after his apparent suicide and finds herself at odds with their father, who had expected to pass on responsibility to his son, a handover made difficult by a failed insurance claim after the floods and dire financial straits. In Lee’s film, Johnny dreams of escape but cannot bear to leave his father, whose stroke has immobilised him. (Brilliantly subtle acting from Ian Hart in this supporting role: he is a tyrant but one you can empathise and sympathise with.)
Of the two films, God’s Own Country feels more real – and less melodramatic – than The Levelling, which to be fair aims for a much more Gothic pitch, full of wild flashbacks and never far from going up in flames. But both get their hands dirty and the farming feels totally authentic in both.
It feels good to have a film of the year brewing in October. Certainly a whole gang of films made or financed in the UK are giving 2017 a perhaps pertinently vivid sense of British identity in a year when we seem hell bent on tearing ourselves away from Europe and going it foolishly alone. Who knows where it will lead. But God’s Own Country might well be a film for Brexit, whether intended or otherwise. It’s certainly Gheorghe, the Romanian, who saves the rejected lamb from being culled using techniques he has brought with him to this country. Farming today, eh?