Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a man of extremely few words, or even facial expressions. On a struggling farm on the Yorkshire Moors, he toils from morning to night, doing the work his sick father (Ian Hart) can’t. At night he gets drunk. He occasionally picks up men for sex, but kissing and conversation are off the menu. Johnny’s mood is as low and dark as the storm clouds that seem to follow him around. Debut director Francis Lee has made the story of this quiet, unhappy man into a romance that shakes with warmth and feeling.
The agent of change in Johnny’s life is Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), a Romanian migrant who comes to the farm to help with lambing season. Johnny treats Gheorghe as he does everyone else, as if he’s barely there, until they’re sent off into the hills to tend to the sheep. After bickering a bit, Johnny attempts a rough seduction. He just wants sex in the mud. Gheorghe challenges him to actually feel something.
Lee draws this faltering romance without sentiment but with a full heart. The men get to know each other mostly by watching – Johnny standing by, trying to suppress a smile while Gheorghe gently coaxes a dying lamb back to life – rather than talking. With exquisite performances and a patient pace, dialogue isn’t needed to know that feelings are growing.
It’s tempting to make comparisons to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Both chart a romance that develops between one man who speaks his mind and one who barely speaks at all, when they’re sent away on a farming job. Both are equal parts anger and tenderness. Sheep feature heavily. This film, though, isn’t about love suppressed in fear of society but in fear of connection. Homophobia isn’t pervasive in this tiny village.
It’s Johnny’s fear that his life is a dead-end that makes him shy from relationships, not his sexuality. Lee steers away from obvious story beats we think are coming and never allows himself an easy emotion. In his world, living is hard and loving is harder, but, says this wonderful film, the challenge is worth facing.