John Saxby hates his life. He lives as a sheep farmer in Yorkshire, along with his father and grandmother. His father’s deteriorating health, following a stroke, has increased the burden on John. Whenever possible he goes into the town to get blackout drunk, a dependency that affects his work. He lives in the “real world” far from the indulgent lights of Bradford where his former friends have now fled.
John is also gay, which manifests as rough encounters in the back of sheep pens with men he meets at the market. There’s no affection in John. He has no time for what his father calls “wet talk”, meaning useless sentiment.
Due to his father’s illness and John’s reluctance to accept his responsibilities, the family advertise for a farmhand. One man applies, a Romanian named Gheorghe. It’s immediately obvious that Gheorghe is a much more intuitive and skilled worker than John. He is tender and patient, as seen when he nurses a stillborn lamb back to life, despite John’s protests that it’ll be a runt. John immediately distrusts and dislikes him, calling him Gypsy.
Early in the film the two men are required to head out into the grounds to camp and tend to their various tasks far from the house. The tension between them is brilliantly played by newcomers Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu. On the first night the two men prepare to “enjoy” a pot noodle. Gheorghe has some sachets of something on him that he sprinkles into the pot. He has infinite secret stores of things that will make this bleak existence more interesting. The relationship between them is hard won, but gradually John is forced to completely rediscover the farm and the life to which he has been bound.
The beauty of the film is in its depiction of subtle but deeply meaningful tender moments between characters, set against the harsh landscape of a Yorkshire spring. The characters are all armored against their difficult lifestyles, but the joy of the film is seeing just how deeply they all care for each other. A man reaches across a table and rests a finger against his lover’s hand. An angry young man is quieted and comforted by the gesture. These moments are plenty.
Performances are beautifully understated throughout the cast, but I was particularly moved by the quiet affections of John’s elders. Ian Hart plays Martin, John’s father, a man of few words who is raging against his failing body. Gemma Jones plays Deidre, John’s Grandmother, a practical woman who is clearly greatly pained by her son’s anguish. They are hardened people who care very deeply about each other and John.
My favourite scene in the movie starts as one of the hardest to watch. A dead lamb is found in the sheep pen. Gheorghe unsentimentally sets about eviscerating the body. Many audience members looked away but what Gheorghe’s does with the pelt he has liberated from the corpse is beautiful and proved to be one of the more audience pleasing flourishes.
I really loved this film and will be very surprised if it doesn’t end up ranking amongst the year’s best.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of the podcast One Good Thing.