Alison Willmore is a film critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. She was formerly the only critic at BuzzFeed News, the first TV editor at IndieWire and the host of Filmspotting: SVU.
Photo: Nick Wall/Studios Twentieth Century
Nancy Stokes, the retired teacher and young widow played by Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, has a very middle-class freakout shortly after meeting the sex worker the film is named after. She’s hired Leo (Daryl McCormack), but after actually finding herself in a hotel room with him, she can’t help but tremble at his increasingly amused face at how he might be taken advantage of. “Maybe you’re an orphan!” she whines. “Maybe you grew up in foster care and have very low self-esteem. You could have been acted against your will – you can’t tell just by looking at someone!” He denies every horrific scenario and finally solemnly informs her that he’s saving for college. “Oh! Oh, how wonderful,” she replies in relief before realizing he’s teasing her.
The possibility of Leo doing his job voluntarily and not by force is something Nancy finds difficult to assess and doesn’t want to do anyway. As she explains in a fit of shame masked by self-mockery, she’s never had an orgasm (“I’m not expecting one, so relax”). Her husband passed away two years ago and Leo will be the second man she has ever been with, but the rush of bravery and curiosity that prompted her to book him is now that the moment has come gone. If she could convince herself that Leo was a victim, she would have an excuse to send him away without breaking the bank. As he observes, she talks about the sex she sets out to do as if it were an ordeal to be endured, which it seems to have been for most of her life.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a boundlessly generous and often surprising two-handed film directed by Sophie Hyde (Animals) and written by comedian Katy Brand. It’s about a middle-aged woman trying to convince herself that erotica isn’t something that’s passed her by – that she has a groove to take back. But it’s also, even more radically, a case for sex work — not just as a profession that owes everyone else equal protection and respect, but as a means of freeing someone to get in touch with their own needs. Nancy has more baggage than a transatlantic flight, all accumulated over several decades of living in a world that still tends to judge women for being sexually outside the confines of hetero-monogamy, to look down on them for being within it Boundaries are not appropriately sexual, and despising them for having desires when they themselves are not, or no longer, considered desirable. Even in a scenario where she’s paying for a service, she apologizes for her age and lack of experience, like she’s on a blind date with someone she thinks is out of her league. Leo must get her to focus on their interactions, something made possible by the clarity of the terms of their meeting and his reassurances that his willingness can be counted on.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is one of two films this year set primarily in a hotel room and about a middle-aged white English woman who discovers her sensuality with the help of a handsome black man – a situation that is hardly free Baggage yourself when it comes to fetishization and sexual stereotypes. But while George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, out late summer, veers toward exoticism with a kamikaze engagement, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande tries to see his two leads for who 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, where Thompson is characteristically great – demure, vulnerable, scared, boisterous, tense – as Nancy, a woman you need to empathize with without always sympathizing with, especially when she can’t help but be curious being in 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, that’s the revelation. He’s the kind of ambiguous beauty who tends to cast actors in films about the future where bigotry has been magically eliminated because everyone is multiracial and just so happens to be hot as fire. Good luck, Leo Grande taps into that quality, almost making Leo seem like an envoy from a more enlightened age, with a belief in what he’s doing that’s nothing short of utopian. His reassuring certainty turns out to be just as much a facade as Nancy’s talkativeness – despite his confidence, not everyone in their life has embraced their calling. The film consists almost entirely of Leo and Nancy in a series of rooms together, which feels less playful than deliberately clipped in focus. Hyde likes to linger with her actors when their characters are alone, and early in the film when Nancy is trying to calm herself in the bathroom, Leo is fidgeting, trying to decide on the right amount of skin and pose to go along with he should greet her when she comes out again.
It’s funny, not because both are ridiculous, but because making an effort to be sexy can be an absurdity that doesn’t actually negate the sexiness, unless someone gets defensive. Showing Leo trying to be an object of desire is one of the many ways the film allows him to be more than just that. So lucky for you, Leo Grande is about trying to achieve 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 stigma or failure. It’s an inherently talkative film, but there’s something glorious about the way it finally offers a burst of open, happy, unrestrained fucking after having pushed its sex scenes offscreen for most of its runtime. It’s like the characters deserve it – hell, it feels like those of us watching did, too.
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