IT WAS a stellar cast by any standard: Kevin Bacon, Stanley Tucci and Richard E Grant. But they all took second billing to a farmer’s son from Halifax.
Soyland-born Francis Lee had gone to the gala launch of the Edinburgh International Film Festival an unknown. He emerged, in the best cinema tradition, a celebrity.
Lee is the auteur whose debut feature film is the surprise hit of the summer, even two months before its official release.
God’s Own Country, a sympathetic drama about a sheep farmer in the Pennines who falls in love with a Romanian migrant worker, was chosen to open the 70th anniversary Edinburgh event after its rapturous reception at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival last January.
Its central theme of a gay relationship in isolated and unkind surroundings has earned it the sobriquet ‘Yorkshire’s Brokeback Mountain’.
“It’s amazing to be the opening night film,” Lee said, posing for pictures with his actors on the red carpet outside Edinburgh’s glass-fronted Festival Theatre.
“You only have to look at the incredible films that have had their UK premiere in Edinburgh. It felt like I’m in great company. To be offered the opening night, particularly for a film which has a same-sex relationship, in a mainstream festival feels like a massive achievement.”
As Kevin Bacon and the other celebrity visitors waited their turn, God’s Own Country was played to a packed house.
“It’s one of best films of the year for me,” said the festival’s director, Mark Adams. “I think it will feature in the awards – I suspect it will be at the Baftas and have that kind of profile.”
He had not booked it out of political correctness, he added. “We didn’t come it at from any particular perspective. It is just a really great British movie.”
God’s Own Country’s route to the screen was a drama in itself. Lee, who left his family’s farm to be an actor but gave that up and took work in a Yorkshire scrapyard while he wrote and tried to finance his magnum opus, said: “I had always wanted to write and tell stories visually.
“I had never felt confident to sit down and put pen to paper. I reached a certain age when I thought: ‘Just give it a go.’ I got a job in a scrapyard and self-financed three short films. While I was doing that I wrote this.”
He said he had been at pains to make the film as authentic as possible and had instructed his costumiers to buy only clothes to which the characters could have access. “Basically that meant Keighley town centre,” he said.
Lee does not conform to any celebrity stereotype. He is 47, sports an Edward VII-style beard and lives in what he describes as a “wooden hut” in the hills above Keighley.
He said it had been “an extraordinary year for queer films”, citing the Oscar-winning Moonlight. “These films now seem to be speaking to a much wider audience. That is incredibly progressive, not just for cinema, but for us as people.”