Francis Lee's stark, striking God's Own Country is one of several significant films this year to depict hard-edged men softening, opening up, finding the courage to admit that everything they need to get through this life isn't already inside them. The protagonist, raw-eyed farm boy Johnny (Josh O'Connor), has inherited from his father a brusque coldness, a silence that he seems to consider fitting for a man from the rough hills of northern England. There, beneath gray-tufted skies he's too diffident to find beautiful, Johnny tends his father's sheep -- but often wakes up so hung over can't be bothered with the upkeep of the fences and paddocks. On trips into town, Johnny grits his way through no-kissing shags with men he won't make eye contact with; at home, the strained quiet is broken only by the bleats of the flock, the complaints of his grandmother (Gemma Jones), or the carping of his father. It's not the life Johnny wants, but he can't seem to imagine what that life might look like.
Fortunately, it comes to him. Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a strapping yet tender Romanian lad hired on for a week to help Johnny rebuild a stone wall. Johnny pushes Gheorghe away, but eventually, alone at the hump where hill meets sky, they make love, their pale bodies smeared with earth.
In his debut feature, Lee has crafted a mature love story centered on an immature man facing the fear of even admitting that he needs love at all. Gheorghe shows Johnny how some gentleness and consideration improve the lives of the animals. That lesson, it turns out, applies to human relations as well. It's a film to prize.