Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Cinema Scent: God's Own Country (dir. Francis Lee; 2017)

It's been a while since I watched a film quite as pungent as this one: from the moment it begins, Francis Lee's moving and well-observed God's Own Country reeks of the many smells of its environment. In almost every frame, someone's either vomiting or urinating or licking a scab or thrashing around in mud (a re-working of the Women In Love wrestling scene?) or having sex. In fact, at one point - which foreshadows a poignant moment towards the end - a ewe is persuaded to suckle a lamb after it's clothed in the wool of her dead baby. She gives it a sniff and then allows it to approach.

It's a testament to Lee's talents that these constant references to fluids and excretions amount to much more than a simplistic statement about the power of nature. Yes, of course, on one level that is precisely the message they convey. While working on a Yorkshire farm, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu, in a smouldering, star-making role) and John (a heartbreaking, nuanced turn from Josh O'Connor; he lights up and softens before our very eyes) can never escape the physical realities of their setting: the rocks, the fire, the rain. Indeed, this could well be one of the most convincingly rural films of recent years; I suspect Thomas Hardy would have liked it much more than the prettified renditions of his own novels, despite the odd moment of heavy-handed symbolism.

But I'd say the sensual imagery is much more about 'naturalness', which is rather different from a flimsy, hippie-esque notion of being at one with the cosmos. All of the story's most graphic moments - from the visceral to the sexual - are presented with no fanfare whatsoever. In keeping with this measured tone - and despite what we were led to believe by the film's trailer - its main characters' homosexuality is a non-issue; yes, there may be a few superficial similarities, but this is no conflicted, Brokeback Mountain-style account of being in the closet. Of course, there does have to be a point of narrative tension, and here it stems from the question of whether John will let down his guard and surrender to tenderness, slowness and the aforementioned 'naturalness'. Not long after he complains that a particular location "stinks of p**s", Gheorghe counters with a comment about the beautiful scents of spring in his native Romania. It is this evolving exchange between the two men which propels the story and ultimately lends it considerable emotional weight. That said, there is one topic which remains unmentioned: the question of where Gheorghe will have to go post-Brexit. But perhaps this was a cesspit too noxious even for Lee.

For more Cinema Scent reviews, please click here.

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