Some may look back on 2017 as the year that LGBT+ film entered the mainstream. With both Call Me By Your Name and The Handmaiden winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Not in the English Language respectively at the BAFTAs, it seems to have been an important year. Perhaps this is demonstrated more by Moonlight winning Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, arguably the most important award in cinema.
However, the most interesting LGBT+ film of the year was overlooked at the majority of awards ceremonies: God’s Own Country, a beautiful, unflinching exploration of class and love, featuring two main characters who merely happen to be gay.
God’s Own Country, set on a working farm in Yorkshire, tells the story of Johnny, who relieves his anger at the world with binge drinking and casual sex. His life is changed by the arrival of Gheorghe, a migrant worker from Romania. After a period of sexually charged antagonism, a bond develops between Johnny and Gheorghe.
As their relationship progresses, Johnny’s tough demeanour softens, thanks to Gheorghe’s tenderness, a quality that seems entirely absent from Johnny’s father and grandmother. In classic social realist fashion, the dialogue is sparse and the skies are always grey, but God’s Own Country has a happy ending. Breaking with film tradition, the love between the protagonists is not destructive, but rather redemptive.
As with all great LGBT+ film, God’s Own Country uses sexuality to talk about other marginalised identities. Johnny’s father and grandmother, while not thrilled by it, seem to have come to terms with Johnny’s sexuality. It is Gheorghe who is in real danger, and it is because of his immigrant status in a depressed northern community, rather than because of his sexuality.
Historically, great LGBT+ films have done this: Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997) uses homosexuality to discuss identities in flux during the period of Hong Kong transference from British to Chinese rule. In both God’s Own Country and Happy Together, homosexuality is not presented merely as a theme to be explored. Instead, it is taken as an unquestioned element in the lives of the characters that gives them no reason for internal strife or soul searching. It is their identity as a displaced minority – be it a Romanian in northern England or a Hong Konger in Argentina – that creates the dramas and conflicts which drive the films forward.
Themes of identities in flux are central to both The Handmaiden and Call Me By Your Name. In The Handmaiden, central plot points revolve around disguised or mistaken identities. In Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet’s Elio fluently switches between English, French, and Italian. At first, he conceals his Jewish identity, but later, under the influence of Oliver, he begins to embrace it, wearing a Star of David openly.
However, both The Handmaiden and Call Me By Your Name feature sexuality that is illicit and unaccepted by society, and because of this, cannot help seeming at times exploitative. This is a trend often seen in LGBT+ film. The Handmaiden, like Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), features gratuitous lesbian sex directed by men. As such, it has been reasonably criticised as being for men.
In decentralising the theme of homosexuality and prioritising instead class and cultural identity, God’s Own Country arguably speaks more sincerely about being different, compared to other films this year. Johnny is not actively persecuted for his sexuality. However, he still keenly feels his status as ‘other’. God’s Own Country’s brilliance is how it manages to show that disparate social identities can relate merely through their status as being other. Arguably, what Johnny and Gheorghe bond over most strongly is their marginalisation. The director, Francis Lee, wanted it to be clear that God’s Own Country was not a film about Brexit. However, the social divides that lead to Brexit and that create the drama in God’s Own Country are one and the same, and coming to them through the overt theme of homosexuality allows them to be treated with a powerful sensitivity.
When looking back at the history of LGBT+ cinema, 2017 will likely be remembered as an important year. It is less clear that God’s Own Country will stand out. However, with its powerful yet sensitive approach to identity which goes beyond, God’s Own Country shows how the cliché that what unites us is stronger than what divides us turns out to be true. God’s Own Country reminds us that, no matter who is involved, love is love.
Image: Picturehouse Entertainment