Photo: Nick Wall / 20th Century Studios
Nancy Stokes, the retired teacher and recent-ish widow played by Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, has a very bourgeois freakout not long after meeting the sex worker the film is named for. She hired Leo (Daryl McCormack), but having found herself actually with him in a hotel room, she can not help but nervously rattle off ways in which he is possibly being exploited to his increasingly amused face. “Maybe you’re an orphan!” she yelps. “Perhaps you grew up in care, and you’ve got very low self-esteem. You could have been trafficked against your will – you can not tell just by looking at somebody! ” He denies each dire scenario, finally informing her solemnly that he’s saving up for college. “Oh! Oh, how wonderful, ”she responds, relieved, before realizing that he’s teasing her.
The possibility that Leo could be doing his job by choice rather than due to coercion is something Nancy has trouble wrapping her head around, and does not entirely want to anyway. As she explains in a rush of shame masked by self-deprecation, she never had an orgasm (“I’m not expecting one, so you can relax”). Her husband died two years ago, and Leo will be the second man she’s ever been with, but whatever rush of bravado and curiosity led her to book him has evaporated now that the moment has arrived. If she could convince herself that Leo was a victim, she’d have an excuse to send him away without chickening out. As he observes, she talks about the sex that she has planned to have as though it’s an ordeal to be gotten through, which is what it seems to have been for most of her life.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a boundlessly generous and frequently surprising two-hander from director Sophie Hyde (Animals) and written by comedian Katy Brand. It’s about a middle-aged woman trying to convince herself that eroticism is not something that has passed her by – that she has a groove to get back. But it’s also, more radically, a case for sex work – not just as a profession owed the same protection and respect allotted to any other, but as a means for someone to be liberated in getting in touch with their own wants. Nancy has more baggage than a transatlantic flight, all accrued over several decades of living in a world that still tends to judge women for being sexual outside the boundaries of hetero monogamy, to look down on them for not being adequately sexual within those borders, and to scorn them for having desires when they’re not or no longer regarded as desirable themselves. Even in a scenario in which she’s paying for a service, she apologizes for her age and lack of experience, as if she’s on a blind date with someone she believes to be out of her league. Leo has to ease her into centering herself in their interactions, something that’s made possible by the clarity of terms of their meeting, and by his reassurances that his willingness can be counted on.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is one of two movies this year that take place primarily in a hotel room and deal with a middle-aged white English woman discovering her sensuality with the help of a handsome Black man – a situation that’s hardly devoid of baggage itself when it comes to fetishization and sexual stereotypes. But while George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longingwhich comes out at the tail end of summer, leans into exotification with a kamikaze commitment, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande attempts to see its two leads as the humans they are while also giving us glimpses of the types they might be tempted to see each other as. This works because of the performances, with Thompson characteristically great – brittle, vulnerable, terrified, blustery, clenched tight – as Nancy, a woman you’re invited to feel empathy for without always sympathizing with, especially when she can not help but pry into Leo’s background against his will over the course of their successive meetings.
But it’s McCormack, an Irish actor coming off a run on Peaky Blinders, who’s the revelation. His is the kind of ambiguous beauty that tends to get actors cast in movies about futures where bigotry has been magically eliminated because everyone is multiracial and, coincidentally, hot like burning. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande leans into this quality by having Leo come across almost like an envoy from a more enlightened time, with a belief in what he does that’s downright utopian. His reassuring certainty turns out to be as much of a front as Nancy’s chattiness – despite his confidence, not everyone in his life has embraced his calling. The film consists almost entirely of Leo and Nancy in a series of rooms together, which feels less play-like than deliberately curtailed in its focus. Hyde likes to linger on her actors when their characters are alone, and early in the movie, as Nancy tries to calm herself in the bathroom, Leo futzes around trying to decide on the right amount of skin and appropriate pose with which to greet her when she comes back out.
It’s funny, not because either of them are ridiculous, but because there can be an absurdity in making an effort to be sexy that does not actually negate the sexiness unless someone gets defensive. Showing Leo trying to figure out how to perform being an object of desire is one of the many ways the movie allows him to be more than just that. So much of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is about trying to reach the kind of comfort where you can laugh, and ask to change positions because of a cramp, and be open about whether or not you had an orgasm without a sense of stigma or failure. It’s a talky movie by nature, but there’s a gloriousness to the way that, after pushing its sex scenes offscreen for most of the runtime, it finally offers a burst of frank, joyous, unfettered fucking. It’s as though the characters have earned it – hell, it feels as though those of us watching have too.