I accept that ‘hmm’ isn’t the most promising of openings to a film review, but it’s the best I can muster for the inelegantly titled Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, directed by Sophie Hyde. It’s possibly the most mixed bag of a movie ever, with lots to admire – but lots to wince at too.
Emma Thompson, of course, falls into the former category. She’s a terrific actor. Here, she’s playing Nancy, a retired widow with a mission: to have an orgasm. A former RE teacher, Nancy has only ever had boring sex with her husband. Now he’s dead, but she’s still alive, and she’s determined not to waste the time she has left. The answer? A sex worker. Enter the titular Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), purveyor of fantasies at an hourly rate.
But can Nancy let go enough to, well… let herself go?
We find out via a series of encounters, all in the same bland hotel room, although the focus is usually on what happens around the sex – the conversations and revelations that occur as Nancy negotiates the minefield of paid-for physical contact.
Katy Brand’s script is agonisingly funny in places: she nails Nancy’s ‘oh so British’ embarrassment, her tendency to overthink out loud, to chatter her discomfort. Thompson clearly revels in these moments, and – as a character study – the film is a roaring success. It’s also bold in its addressing of an older woman’s sexuality. The tone is set early on, when Leo describes Nigella Lawson as “sexy”. Nancy waits for him to add the obligatory “for her age” but Leo demurs. “She’s empirically sexy,” he says. And, over time, Nancy learns to like her own body too, to stop apologising for her tummy and her saggy boobs, to accept herself the way she is.
McCormack is a relative newcomer, but it seems likely he’s a big career ahead. The camera loves him, and he embodies the role well, slowly revealing the steel behind the soft exterior. “I’m who you want me to be,” says Leo, perfectly fulfilling his contract – but his boundaries are clear, and he’s protective of his ‘real’ self.
There is some attempt to deal with ethical issues, but this feels a little glib. Nancy talks about the essay she used to set her students: ‘Should sex work be legalised?’ She mentions trafficking and violence against female sex workers. Leo tells her her enjoys his work, that he doesn’t want to be painted as a ‘poor little orphan’ to suit someone else’s conscience. They reach an uneasy consensus, agreeing that sex therapy should be available ‘from the council’ (though heaven knows what that would be like). And I know it’s a complex subject, that sex workers often object to being cast as victims, when many of them have agency and choice – and who am I to tell them that they’re wrong – but I don’t think this gives us carte blanche to ignore the exploitation and misery that undeniably exists as well. And Leo is so very clean-cut that the whole thing appears curiously unsexy, so wholesome that it seems to be in denial about the gritty physicality involved. This version of sex work is not so much glamourised as defanged.
So, ‘hmm’ it is. I enjoy watching Leo Grande but I’m unconvinced by it. And if you’re a teacher? Maybe don’t tell your ex-pupils about your sex life. It’s not empowering; it’s just weird.