Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Emma Thompson is magnificent in this wonderfully candid, intimate, generous and joyous sex comedy, which follows a fiftysomething woman finally trying to explore her desires with a charming sex worker.
August 18, 2022
People have orgasms every day, but for decades spent closing her eyes and thinking of England in a sexually perfunctory marriage, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande's lead character wasn't among them. Forget la petite mort, the French term for climaxing; Nancy Stokes' (Emma Thompson, Cruella) big wrestling match with mortality, the one we all undertake, has long been devoid of erotic pleasure. Moments that feel like a little death? Unheard of. That's where this wonderfully candid, intimate, generous and joyous sex comedy starts, although not literally. Flashbacks to Nancy enduring getting it over with beneath her now-deceased spouse, missionary style, aren't Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde (Animals) or British comedian-turned-screenwriter Katy Brand's (Glued) concern. Instead, their film begins with the religious education teacher waiting in a hotel room, about to take the biggest gamble of her life: meeting the eponymous sex worker (Daryl McCormack, Peaky Blinders).
For anyone well-versed in Thompson's prolific on-screen history, and of Brand's work before the camera as well, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande inspires an easy wish: if only Nancy had a different job. Back in 2010, the pair co-starred in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, a title that'd also fit their latest collaboration if its protagonist cared for kids rather than taught them. Jokes aside, the instantly charming Leo is used to hearing that sentiment about his own professional choices. Indeed, Nancy expresses it during their pre- and post-coital discussions, enquiring about the events that might've led him to his career. "Maybe you're an orphan!" she says. "Perhaps you grew up in care, and you've got very low self-esteem," she offers. "You could have been trafficked against your will — you can't tell just by looking at somebody!" she continues.
There are plenty of "if only" thoughts and feelings pulsating through Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a film where its namesake's tongue couldn't be more important — yes, in that way, and also because talk is as crucial as sex here. If only Nancy hadn't spent half of her existence in a pleasure-free marriage. If only a lifetime of being middle class and socially conservative, and of internalising Britain's stereotypical 'keep calm and carry on' mentality, hadn't left her adrift from her desires. If only being a woman in her mid-50s wasn't seen as a libidinous void by society at large, a mindset that's as much a part of Nancy as the wrinkles and ageing body parts she can barely look at in the mirror. If only prioritising her sensual needs wasn't virtually taboo, too, especially in her mind — even after, two years since being widowed, she's booked an expensive rendezvous with Leo.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande unpacks those if onlys — not the Nanny McPhee one, obviously, but the idea that Nancy's life is immovably stuck in the same rut it has always been. As played by Thompson at the height of her acting powers, at her absolute splintery, finicky yet vulnerable best even with Last Christmas, Years and Years, Late Night and The Children Act on her recent resume, she's nervous, anxious, uncertain and always on the cusp of cancelling, including once Leo strolls into the room, beams his easy magnetism her way and starts talking about what she wants like it's the most natural thing in the world. Slipping into the sheets and knowing what excites you is the most natural thing in the world, of course, but not to Nancy. As her four appointments with Leo progress, she comes up with a lineup of carnal acts she'd like to experience — and she may as well be reading from her grocery list. But getting her to shed her inhibitions is as much his focus as shedding her clothes, and the twentysomething won't let Nancy keep getting in the way of herself.
How simple Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is, and also how complex. That's fitting; sex is the same. Brand has penned a slinky two-hander about an unfulfilled woman tentatively taking charge of her own wants, and the helping hand she needs to do so, and also a movie that layers every stigma about female lust, older women, sex work, boundaries and respect into one frank, empathetic, penetrating and delightful package. That's there in the minute details, such as Nancy's job teaching religion to schoolgirls, to whom she's shown the same stern judgement she directs her own way. It's in the way that Leo asks before making every move, dismantles Nancy's concerns about his vocation and their age gap, and dedicates their time together to putting her at ease in every way he can as well. And, it also lingers in his response to her lack of care about his own work-life divide.
The straightforwardness, the complications, the texture, the intense emotional landscape — they all evolve and deepen as Good Luck to You, Leo Grande goes on, as do the weighty subjects that the movie ponders, and the two characters swirling through the frame. Twirl, twist, sway, spin, thrust, tumble: Nancy and Leo do all of the above, physically and verbally, and what a double act they make. You could call Good Luck to You, Leo Grande a chamber piece courtesy of its small cast, chatter-heavy setup and the fact it's largely set in one room; however, the always-phenomenal Thompson and the immediately mesmerising McCormack make every second of the film feel expansive. Movies about women of a certain age attempting to get their groove back aren't uncommon, but movies about accepting that there's even a groove to reclaim, why that's essential, and how not only sex but sex work have a pivotal place in our daily lives are almost as scarce as Nancy's orgasms — until now.
Helming her third feature after progressing from the also revelatory 52 Tuesdays through to Animals and now this, Hyde could've just ensured that her regular cinematographer Bryan Mason was peering Thompson and McCormack's way, then let their acting magic happen — and, at times, that's how it appears. But Good Luck to You, Leo Grande does what Nancy never has with herself, and what Leo endeavours to control with his clients: it truly sees its central pair, who they are and who they want to be, and what makes them moan, groan and tick. Hyde is clearly drawn to intricate two-person dynamics and the dances they inspire, whether following a teenager and her transgender parent, two thick-as-thieves best pals or a couple of strangers getting explicit. She blatantly loves telling coming-of-age tales, too, with the emphasis on both the coming and the age in this case. And, she ensures that soaking in the quiet moments, including when her characters are together but alone, says as much as any words bantered back and forth. Sex comedies have rarely felt so lived in, so comfortable, so earnest or so nuanced, or like such a release.