Through the film ‘God’s Own Country’ (available online here), Andrew Bennison reflects on grace, speech and Christian life.
God’s Own Country (2017) is not, despite the title, an overtly religious film. Set on a struggling farm in the Pennines, it is a captivating story of loneliness turned into intimacy, played out against the backdrop of the rugged Yorkshire landscape. Twenty-something Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is the disaffected protagonist, shouldering the burden of running the farm following his father’s stroke, under the tight-lipped scrutiny of his grandmother. It’s an unforgiving way of life. Conversation in the farmhouse is clipped and economical: blunt Yorkshire idioms disclose a stoic resignation to life’s hardships and disappointments. For Johnny, escape takes the form of oblivion: binge-drinking and anonymous sex.
Into this world comes Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), hired to help Johnny with the lambing season. Soft-eyed and pensive, Gheorghe brings a tenderness to the task which unsettles Johnny, who responds with a mixture of aggression and attraction. Their first sexual encounter is rough, urgent and wordless. But as the tenderness which Gheorghe shows to the animals is patiently held out to Johnny, a relationship develops in which Johnny becomes haltingly yet visibly alive. Like the new-born lambs taking their first fragile breaths, we see Johnny being awakened from the deadening effects of loneliness and monotony, both tentative and giddy in his new surroundings. As his father suffers another stroke and the family’s situation becomes even more precarious, Johnny discovers that he needs Gheorghe – a need that runs much deeper than merely keeping the farm afloat. Johnny’s struggle to voice this need marks the climax of the film, and it is only the risk of losing Gheorghe forever that brings him finally to admit it.
Above all, it strikes me that God’s Own Country is a story about learning to speak. The central irony is that the person who finds a voice is Johnny – the one who, initially, wields his coarse Yorkshire dialect as a weapon, defensively charged with xenophobia and machismo. It is Gheorghe, the outsider and non-native English speaker, who teaches Johnny how to speak. A further irony is that Gheorghe teaches Johnny mainly through silence. Through his searching and steady gaze, he coaxes Johnny to new depths of honesty. With his body, he patiently shows Johnny a new way of communicating, shaping his lust into tenderness, aggression into vulnerability, and fear into trust. The few words he says are simple but penetrating, often capturing a truth that Johnny has yet to articulate: ‘It’s beautiful here, but lonely, no?’ Through Johnny, he teaches the whole family a new language of honesty and truthfulness. In a poignant scene, Johnny washes his father in the bath after his second stroke, applying the sponge with a new-found gentleness and attention. His father touches his hand and says simply but meaningfully: ‘Thank you’.
Christian faith involves, I think, a whole series of new discoveries. Principal among them is the task of learning a new language – a new way of speaking shaped by grace, and shorn of fear and self-assertion. Often this may involve very few words, relying instead on habits of touch, attention and hospitality. In such ways, our ‘speaking’ (in a broad sense) becomes genuinely sacramental: a conduct of grace through which God can teach others the same language. This mutuality is reflected, I think, in St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: ‘We have spoken frankly to you; our heart is wide open to you. In return, open wide your hearts also’. (2 Cor. 6.11-13).
The challenge, of course, is that in this new way of speaking, someone has to speak first. Watching God’s Own Country, I found myself reflecting on my own experience of ‘coming out’ last year. The gift of a new-found honesty about myself was the opportunity it provided for speaking a new language, a language of truthfulness, and giving others the permission to do the same. The difficult thing is that very few people will begin the conversation. You have to risk speaking in a way that others might find strange and threatening. And you have to risk speaking first.
In God’s Own Country, Gheorghe speaks love into the life of Johnny. He speaks attentively, silently perceiving Johnny’s hidden pain. He speaks with courage, patiently enduring the risk of rejection. Above all, he speaks with grace – he makes it possible for Johnny to find his own voice. The film left me wondering how Gheorghe learnt to speak this language of grace, and how, in my own life, I might learn to speak it too.