Review: Emma Thompson gets (and gives) marvelous sex ed in ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’
The long, oddly charming title of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is a line of dialogue spoken near the end of this not-too-long and thoroughly charming British comedy. Much earlier than that, however, you might find yourself expressing some version of the same sentiment. Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) is a sex worker in his 20s, and while he’s had many clients of varying persuasions and proclivities, he has never encountered one quite like Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), the prim, anxious 55-year-old widow who’s booked him for a high-priced session. Leo will need more than luck to put nervous Nancy at ease; he’ll need every tool in his kit, the most impressive and dexterous of which may be his tongue.
No need to get your mind out of the gutter; this movie would prefer it stay there. And it knows that when it comes to sex, the tongue can be an instrument of both pleasure and persuasion. Leo has a way with words, a flair for language that endears him to Nancy, a retired high school teacher. And during most of the four separate appointments that make up Katy Brand’s script, Leo and Nancy are engaged in long bouts of verbal foreplay, sharing intimate secrets and navigating a raft of fears and insecurities (most but not all of them Nancy’s). You could say that Brand and director Sophie Hyde take their time getting to the good stuff, except that the talk is good stuff, full of erotic tension, playful humor and candid insight into the erogenous zones of the mind.
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“What’s your fantasy?” Leo asks Nancy during their first meeting in the comfortable-looking hotel room that serves as the film’s primary location. But Nancy, leaning hard on her experience as an educator (and also on Thompson’s skill at playing persnickety authority types), deals more in goals than fantasies. In one of the film’s funnier exchanges, she reads from a list of sex acts she wants to try out, like a waiter rattling off the nightly specials. You have to admire her directness. Having spent decades in a stable, unexciting, orgasm-free marriage, Nancy now wants to shed her inhibitions and satisfy her pent-up longings with a handsome, well-built young man like Leo.
Behind the joyful, nonjudgmental, totally uninhibited sex scenes of ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’
Nude rehearsals, deep trust and ‘enthusiastic consent’ were all part of the process for stars Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack and director Sophie Hyde.
Still, those inhibitions persist, along with all the assumptions and prejudices that come with a socially conservative middle-class English background. (Nancy used to teach religious studies, a calling that seems not to have exactly tamed her libido.) Thompson, skilled at both effrontery and anxiety, mines that tension brilliantly. Nancy knows what she wants and is terrified by how badly she wants it, and she spends much of the early going trying to talk herself out of it, fretting about how much older she is than Leo and how repelled he must be by her sags and wrinkles. But Leo, waving this nonsense aside, reminds her that there’s nothing abnormal, let alone shameful, about expressing something so basic as desire.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” thus achieves both the intimacy of a chamber piece and the directness of a public service announcement, one aimed at promoting sex/body positivity and debunking retrograde attitudes about women’s pleasure and the nature of sex work. If that makes it sound stagy and even didactic — you could certainly imagine it working well as a play — well, the message is a worthy one, and all PSAs should be this pleasurable. At times you can see the gears of Brand’s script grinding away, the carefully engineered pivots from one point or revelation to the next. (The fourth act, in particular, leaves no point unaddressed.) But Hyde stages it all with an unfussy elegance that serves the material, and any lingering creakiness is dispelled by Thompson and McCormack, who always seem to be playing people rather than ideological mouthpieces.
Their dialogue builds up a suitably erotic rhythm; it’s all about give and take, back and forth, the satisfaction of curiosity, the delineation and occasional transgression of boundaries. Nancy, projecting her own moral reservations onto Leo, sometimes goes too far in interrogating him about his profession. Doesn’t he ever feel degraded? And if not, then why does he employ a false identity (Leo Grande, surprise surprise, isn’t his real name) and hide the truth about his work from his family? There’s some honesty in the movie’s acknowledgment that even transactional sex is never the simple, no-strings-attached affair its participants might like to think. Nancy, having shared at length about her dull job, duller marriage and disappointing kids, understandably wants to know more about the man she’s paying to sleep with.
We want to know more about Leo, too, and McCormack, an Irish actor known for his work on “Peaky Blinders,” suggests just the right levels of depth and mystery beneath the cute face and chiseled physique. But we want to know Nancy even more, and Thompson’s performance more than satisfies that curiosity. This is hardly the first time she’s had passionate onscreen sex (who could forget the exploding milk carton in “The Tall Guy”?). Nor is it the first time she’s played a role conceived in opposition to the ageist, sexist status quo, as she did in the 2019 comedy “Late Night.” Still, she has seldom worn her intent as clearly as she does in what is already “Leo Grande’s” most talked-about scene, one that beautifully dismantles every film-industry assumption about which bodies, especially women’s bodies, warrant the camera’s attention.
Mainstream movies, as Thompson, Hyde, Brand and their collaborators know, have done more than their part to keep women in their place, treating the complexities of human sexuality as grounds for sniggering humor at best and censorship at worst. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” presents itself as a corrective, with an earnestness that verges on the Utopian; for all its low-key intimacy and emotional realism, this movie knows it’s selling a fantasy of its own. But it’s hard not to warm to that fantasy, or to embrace its still-rare vision of a woman learning to articulate and satisfy her most human impulses. It’s good for Nancy. And for us.
‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’
Rating: R, for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Available June 17 on Hulu
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