In an era of declining sex scenes in cinema, it’s refreshing when a film comes along that makes the act its main point of focus – even more when it’s a film that tackles taboos, shame, and sex work in a clear-eyed manner. Written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is the sex-positive crowdpleaser the movie landscape needs right now.
Most of the action takes place in a nondescript London hotel room where widowed, retired religious studies teach Nancy (not her real name) hires sex worker Leo Grande (not his real name either) to help her achieve an orgasm for the first time. Relative newcomer Daryl McCormack plays Leo with the soothing temprament of a therapist, while Emma Thompson’s Nancy channels sixty years of repressed erotic engery into controlling nerurosis.
During a series of meetings the two learn about each other – or as much as they’re willing to share with a total stranger. Although sexually repressed to the hilt, Nancy has few social boundaries, often asking questions of Leo that clearly make him uncomfortable. Through their conversations, Nancy not only checks sexual acts off her list, but begins unlearning conservative ideas she has about sex work, about female sexuality, and even about her own body.
Sometimes Leo comes across more as a mouthpiece for the filmmakers, allowing them to spread the gospel of their perspective through his teaching of Nancy. However, McCormack’s charm and vulnerability adds layers to the characters that aren’t necessarily on the page. He also is an incredibly open scene partner, allowing Thompson the space to dig deep into Nancy’s insecurity and ping-pong them off his.
This is some of the most complex, interesting work Thompson’s done since Stranger Than Fiction, crafting a character that is equally as sympathetic as she is aggravating. She’ll pull you in with the sad story of repetitive bad sex she had with her husband – the one man she ever slept with – and then lose you again as she implies it was her students’ fault that the male faculty members at her school sexually harassed them. These are the contradictions within the conservative mindset. Thompson and the filmmakers present them without much judgment, and as the film progresses, offer the hope that change is possible.
Also bound up within her conservative outlook is the inability to have a fantasy. That’s the real service Leo sells, yet Nancy can only see the mechanics of sex and what she wants to learn from a practical perspective. Can she even allow her mind a fantasy after denying so many of her body’s physical needs for so long? For someone who has spent most of her life as a teacher, Nancy’s mind and her body are woefully disconnected. It’s nothing revolutionary to discuss how religion and marketing have made scores of women feel shame and hatred towards their own bodies, but having these feelings articulated by someone is as striking and self-assured as Emma Thompson is in real life illustrates how pervasive and insidious these institutions are for people’s self-worth.
Some aspects of the film don’t quite work, including Leo’s backstory of how he became estranged from his own mother. However, McCormack absolutely nails the monologue he’s saddled with in recalling the story to Nancy. Here his fantasy façade crumbles for a moment, and the two connect on an even deeper emotional level, although not on his terms. The fallout from Nancy’s inability to respect his boundaries also doesn’t play very realistically, even if it allows for a lovely final scene between the two actors.
Although Nancy feels the need for a partner to achieve her sexual awakening, other than helping her with confidence and breaking down her prejudices towards sex workers, it isn’t really Leo who can help her achieve her goals. He knows that. He is a guide for Nancy, but Nancy must walk the path towards self-acceptance herself, and once she does many pleasures abound.
After the film’s Sundance premiere there was much chatter about the film’s final scene, as Nancy explores her own, aged body. Early in the film she tells Leo there is nothing she liked about her body except her calves, while Leo found many more parts of her beautiful. Watching Nancy gaze upon herself and for once feel contentment is revelatory. Thompson is raw and radiant. This is her body. This is what aging looks like. This is what sexuality can look like.
As she stares at herself in the mirror, what reflects back is not just her body, but a call to examine and dismantle our own prejudices and hangups. To embrace our own bodies with the same self-love as Nancy, and the bodies of others regardless of shape, size, age, and ability with the same non-judgemental attitude Leo brings to his work every day. Therein lies the trick to true intimacy and human connection.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is on Hulu Friday.