‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ review: Emma Thompson wins again

The long, oddly charming title Good Luck Leo Grande is a line of dialogue spoken towards the end of this not-too-long and thoroughly charming British comedy. Much earlier, however, you might find yourself expressing a version of the same feeling. Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) is a sex worker in his 20s, and while he’s had many clients of varying beliefs and preferences, he’s never met anyone quite like Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), his stiff, anxious 55-year-old widow booked for a high-priced session. Leo will need more than luck to calm nervous Nancy; He needs every tool in his kit, perhaps the most impressive and skilled of which is his tongue.

You don’t have to get your mind out of the gutter; This film would prefer to stay there. And it knows that the tongue can be an instrument of pleasure as well as persuasion during sex. Good with words, Leo has a flair for language that endears him to Nancy, a retired high school teacher. And throughout most of the four separate dates that make up Katy Brand’s script, Leo and Nancy engage in lengthy verbal foreplay, share intimate secrets, and navigate a series of fears and insecurities (most, but not all, are Nancy’s). You could say that Brand and director Sophie Hyde take their time to get down to the good stuff, other than the conversation is good material, full of erotic tension, playful humor and an open insight into the erogenous zones of the mind.

“What’s your fantasy?” Leo asks Nancy when they first meet in the cozy-looking hotel room that serves as the film’s main location. But Nancy, drawing heavily on her experience as a preschool teacher (and also on Thompson’s ability to play pedantic authority types), is more concerned with goals than fantasies. In one of the film’s funnier exchanges, she reads from a list of sex acts she wants to try like a waiter rattling off the night’s specials. You have to admire her directness. After spending decades in a stable, unexciting, orgasm-free marriage, Nancy now wants to let go of her inhibitions and quench her pent-up cravings with a handsome, well-built young man like Leo.

Yet these inhibitions remain, along with all the assumptions and prejudices that come with a socially conservative middle-class English background. (Nancy used to teach religious studies, a career that doesn’t seem to have tamed her libido.) Thompson, a master of both insolence and fear, diffuses that tension brilliantly. Nancy knows what she wants and is appalled at how badly she wants it, and she spends much of the early days trying to talk herself out of it, and resents how much older she is than Leo and how repulsed he is by hers Wrinkles must be hanging. But Leo, waving that nonsense aside, reminds her that there’s nothing abnormal, let alone shameful, about expressing her desires.

A shirtless man and woman look into a mirror together.

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck Leo Grande.

(Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios)

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande thus achieves both the intimacy of an intimate play and the immediacy of a public service announcement aimed at promoting sex/body positivity and reversing regressive attitudes about women’s pleasure and the nature of sex work expose. If that makes it sound scenic and even didactic – you can surely imagine it working well as a play – well, the message is a worthy one, and all commercials should be as enjoyable. At times you can see the cogs of Brand’s screenplay grinding, the carefully constructed fulcrums from one point or revelation to the next. (The fourth act, in particular, makes no bones about it.) But Hyde orchestrates the whole thing with an unfussy elegance that serves the material, and any remaining creaks are dissipated by Thompson and McCormack, who always seem to be playing human beings rather than ideological mouthpieces.

Their dialogue builds an appropriately erotic rhythm; it’s about give and take, back and forth, about satisfying curiosity, about pulling and occasionally crossing borders. Nancy, projecting her own moral reservations onto Leo, sometimes goes too far when questioning him about his profession. Doesn’t he ever feel belittled? And if not, then why is he using a false identity (Leo Grande, surprise surprise, isn’t his real name) and hiding the truth about his work from his family? There’s a certain honesty in the film’s acknowledgment that even transactional sex is never the easy, noncommittal affair its participants might like to think. Nancy, who has spoken at length about her boring job, boring marriage, and disappointing kids, understandably wants to know more about the man she pays to sleep with.

A smiling man and woman

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck Leo Grande.

(Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios)

We’re curious to know more about Leo, too, and McCormack, an Irish actor best known for his work on Peaky Blinders, suggests just the right amount of depth and mystery beneath the cute face and chiseled physique. But we still want to know more about Nancy, and Thompson’s performance more than satisfies that curiosity. This is hardly the first time she’s had passionate on-screen sex (who could forget the exploding milk carton in The Tall Guy?). It’s also not the first time she’s played a role conceived against the age-constrained, sexist status quo, like she did in 2019’s comedy Late Night. Yet she has seldom made her intentions as clear as in what is already the most talked-about scene from Leo Grande, a scene that beautifully refutes any assumption the film industry has made about which bodies, especially women’s bodies, deserve camera attention .

Mainstream films, 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 snickering humor at best and censorship at worst. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” presents itself as a corrective, with a seriousness bordering on utopia; For all of its understated intimacy and emotional realism, this film knows it’s selling a fantasy of its own. But it’s hard not to warm to this fantasy, or embrace its still-rare vision of a woman learning to articulate and gratify her most human impulses. It’s good for Nancy. And for us.

“Good luck to you, Leo Grande”

Valuation: R, for sexual content, graphic nudity, and some language

Duration: 1 hour, 37 minutes

To play: Available June 17th on Hulu

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-06-16/good-luck-to-you-leo-grande-review-emma-thompson ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ review: Emma Thompson wins again

Sarah Ridley

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