Intimate in every sense, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande represents an affirming, immensely likable British comedy-drama. Admittedly, it’s more issue- than character-driven, like a hip advice-column story but with tracking shots. But that didacticism works given that it features Emma Thompson as a prim, widowed, high-school religious studies teacher who hires Daryl McCormack’s sex worker for a date, hoping to have an orgasm for the first time ever.
Naturally, the course of true pleasure n’er runs smooth, but along the way this lean, sensitively performed two-hander, written by British comedian Katy Brand and directed by Australian Sophie Hyde (Animals, 52 Tuesdays), builds up a refreshingly sex-positive portrait of a client-escort relationship, but with a female customer for a change. Although older female viewers would seem to be Leo‘s obvious target, other demographics would also get into its groove. Theatrical returns might be modest, but online it will gush streams like a river in springtime.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Sex-positive and positively sexy.
Although shot in a just-glimpsed Norwich, Norfolk, about a hundred miles from London, the town isn’t named and the story could be taking place in just about any hotel room in the U.K., or at least in any town big enough to have male escorts working discreetly in the area. In fact, the action is so confined to one location, you would almost think Brand had written this as a stage play originally. (Indeed, if this works as a film feature, maybe it will transition as a theater work someday.)
In a plush but anonymous hotel suite with a nice city view and a fully stocked mini bar, Dublin-accented escort Leo Grande (McCormack, from Peaky Blinders) arrives to meet Nancy Stokes. (She is played by Thompson, who, although she’s always worked quite steadily, is having a bit of a moment lately on screen with meatier than usual roles, for example in Late Night or the superb six-part BBC/HBO series Years & Years.)
Nancy lost her husband two years ago, and he was the only man she’d ever had sex with. Now she wants some professional help to see if she can finally experience a real orgasm, having always faked it. Moreover, she’d like to try some other kinds of sex (oral, both giving and receiving, and then both at the same time) and positions (doggy?) that her late husband was never interested in attempting and she was too shy to insist on.
Silkily confident Leo — who not only has the frictionless bedside manner of a Harley Street therapist but is also clearly intelligent and educated judging by his use of words like “empirically” — isn’t fazed by the prospect of meeting all those requests. Nor, he insists, does he need any little blue pills to help him perform since he insists he finds Nancy very attractive.
Excessively critical of her own body — like so many women, especially post-menopausal women — she refuses to believe him. And yet over the course of several meetings weeks apart, Nancy comes to accept him at his word and learn to enjoy not only Leo’s body but her own as well.
Viewers who might assume that this is heading in the direction of a gender-flipped Pretty Woman are in for a refreshing surprise. No — spoiler alert! — Leo and Nancy are not going to fall in love, but they are going to develop a bond and an abiding respect for one another. Breaking down Nancy’s (and, by extension, the audience’s) assumptions, Leo (and, by extension, the filmmakers, who interviewed real-life sex workers for research) concedes that sex work can be dangerous and that there is a dark side to the profession. But like many of his colleagues, Leo honestly enjoys what he does, and takes pride in his well-honed skills. Not only is he good with people and deeply empathic, he’s able to find something beautiful and arousing in any client, even an 82-year-old woman he discreetly tells Nancy about.
Nevertheless, as with any professional therapist, he has strict boundaries, and Nancy finds herself violating them when she does a bit of internet stalking and works out Leo’s real name. (Both of them admit early on that they’re using pseudonyms.) Furious, he leaves immediately but comes back only to look for his mislaid cellphone, giving Nancy a chance to apologize. Eventually, they trust each other enough to open up more, and Leo can explain why he’s estranged from his mother, who thinks he works on the North Sea oil rigs, while Nancy can rethink her own prejudices and past positions.
That the film has to work toward this kind of revelation in order to create a dramatic arc feels like a minor disservice to the professional relationship, one seldom explored honestly in film, that’s at the story’s core. One could imagine that the cast and filmmakers might have even considered going down a another route and showing Leo and Nancy having un-faked sex — a move not without precedent in arthouse film — although of course that would have made for a very different product.
Instead, every time Leo and Nancy finally finish talking and get down to business, the camera discreetly wanders away and leaves them to it. However, it’s clear from the subsequent dialogue how much these transactions have affected both of them, especially Nancy.
One crucial shot looks on as Nancy finally, finally! has her first orgasm, and somehow Thompson manages to even flush red as if she’s not even acting. Minutes later she stands before a full length mirror, entirely naked and brightly lit enough to show every stretch mark and cellulite bump, and it’s possible she’s never looked sexier and more alluring in her whole career. Some viewers might find it a little hard to buy Thompson as a mousy, repressed schoolteacher in the film’s early reels, but by the end she’s so endearing she’s impossible to resist.
With his work cut out holding his own against such a force, McCormack holds his own very admirably. Indeed, the camera loves him, and the way director Hyde and her regular cinematographer-editor Bryan Mason film him, especially holding close on his always mobile and expressive face as he sits listening to Nancy, is a master class on how to shoot an actor in a way that captures their beauty but doesn’t objectify them. He may be the object of the title’s salutary sentence, but he’s definitely the joint subject of the film.