In “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande,” we meet our characters on the edge of a precipice.
That precipice is their first meeting. Nancy (Emma Thompson), a retired school teacher and widow, has hired a young sex worker named Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) in the hopes that she can find pleasure after a lifetime of sexual disappointment.
We meet both characters as they prepare to meet each other – Nancy arrives at the hotel room she’s picked for the occasion and immediately replaces her more comfortable shoes with heels, while Leo serenely exits a coffee shop and pops a piece of gum into his mouth. Nancy takes advantage of the mini bar and frets over her appearance in the mirror. Leo checks out his perfectly tailored look in a storefront window. Watching these rituals feels a little like the movie hasn’t quite started yet – as if we’re watching actors prepare for a scene as opposed to two people preparing to meet for the first time. When the two do finally meet, the lines of artifice and honesty blur between them.
Not only does “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” paint a deft picture of the performance of sex, but it rather artfully displays the pleasures – and dangers – that come when that performance is stripped away. The way Nancy and Leo negotiate, push, and eventually cross boundaries with each other is handled by director Sophie Hyde and writer Katy Brand with a unique sensitivity that many films lack – maybe because many films don’t offer the same thoughtful outlook on sex work, and many aren’t as empathetic towards older women exploring their desires, aren’t as willing to view them as sexual beings. That sensitivity allows Nancy and Leo to explore themselves and each other in ways that are sometimes empathetic, sometimes cruel, sometimes sexy, but always purely human.
The film follows a play-like structure, broken into four meetings that follow the intricate dance of Leo and Nancy’s relationship. At first, Nancy is wary of Leo’s disarming perfection, wary of any emotion that makes her feel like this situation is outside of her control. Leo, on the other hand, is needling for that loss of control, navigating Nancy’s insecurities with a skilled hand. Thompson plays Nancy with a combination of desperation and self-loathing that seems to vibrate on the surface of her skin. That jittery quality disappears whenever she’s on the cusp of letting go, giving way to something sensual and powerful – but then self-doubt rears its ugly head, pulling her back from the moment. Thompson experty maneuvers back and forth between these two versions of herself, and as Leo, McCormack nimbly fills in the space between. Leo ebbs and flows with her, viewing his job much like a therapist might, giving Nancy the tools to figure out what she wants.
The most interesting part of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” is its presentation of sex work as a public service, particularly in relation to the tension between Leo’s desire to help Nancy and his desire for self-preservation. McCormack leans into the allure of Leo with ease, but his performance offers more nuance than that of a simple charmer. He’s intriguing in the quiet moments between conversations, his eyes flitting over Nancy’s face as he tries to discern the best way to engage with her, but he’s most fascinating in the moments when he’s alone. His posture and face change, the practiced, easy smile leaves his face for a minute, and we’re back to that feeling of watching an actor prepare – figuring out how his clothes should look, finding the poses that make him look the most appealing. McCormack is particular about what his face betrays to the audience versus what he shows to Nancy, a choice that allows us to better understand where the lines of fantasy and reality start to bleed together, where her barbs at her own children hit too close to home for him, where she crosses the line – and where he pushes back, and where he lets her cross.
In one of Leo’s quiet moments of honesty, he shares with Nancy the types of things his other clients ask of him. One wants to have sex and get out as quickly as possible, another wants Leo to talk dirty to her while he bathes her, and another just wants to hold hands and watch television. Everyone wants – and needs – something different, Leo says. Conversations around sex work have long included the idea that legalization and regulation would provide safer environments for sex workers, but the film argues for sex work not just as a safe legal business, but a social good.
“Think how civilized it could be,” Leo says, “if it was just available to all and there’s no shame attached, there’s no judgment. You want sex, and you’re frustrated you can’t get it for whaever reason – you’re shy, you’re unwell, you’re grieving, you’re phyiscally struggling, so you just hire someone like me.”
In Leo’s idealized world, maybe Nancy wouldn’t have felt the stigma associated with her age and sex so strongly. Maybe sexual satisfaction wouldn’t have seemed so unachievable in the first place. Maybe the beginning of the film wouldn’t have felt so much like a precipice – because if you take away the cliff, there’s no need to leap.