Now on Hulu, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is further testament to Emma Thompson’s extraordinary acting abilities. She plays an aging woman who’s deeply insecure about her limited sexual experience, and you actually might truly, honestly believe Dame Emma isn’t one of the sexiest people alive. Peaky Blinders’ Daryl McCormack co-stars as the sex worker she hires to maybe, you know, open up her awareness of the pleasures of the flesh, and help her overcome a bevy of little stinging neuroses. The film is a dialogue-driven, performance-centric one-on-one comedy-drama that finds traction in the details of its characters’ lives – and it’s often delightful.
The Gist: Nancy (Thompson) isn’t her real name, but that’s what she’s going by right now. You must be discreet in these matters, you know. Leo Grande (McCormack) isn’t his real name either, but that’s what he goes by when he’s hired for sexual liasons like this. He knocks, she nervously answers. “May I kiss you on the cheek?” he asks in a gentle tone. She says he’s even better looking in person than in his photo. These people couldn’t be more different: She chatters on, airing out her every little neurotic inkling; his honeyed voice is assuring, confident, his language clean, clear and concise. Is what she’s doing OK? Yes. Is he compromised in any way? No, he’s here by choice, on his own accord. “Am I a disappointment?” she asks. No, of course not. Leo knows the perfect answer to every question. He’s good. Very good.
But that doesn’t mean Nancy doesn’t present a challenge. Her life spills out of her: She’s a former religious-studies schoolteacher. Two adult children – her son is boring and her daughter, not boring enough. Two years a widow. Married only once. Husband used to climb on board and please himself and call it good, so she’s never, ever had an orgasm, not even by herself. She doesn’t have a fantasy, just a desire to be with a young, beautiful man. Leo would be only the second person she’s ever had sex with, if she ever shuts up and lets him do what he’s here to do, which is whatever she wants him to do. But she’d feel guilty just objectifying him, and wants to get to know him, so she asks about him, his mother, his siblings, if they know he’s a sex worker. He answers: He tells his family he works on an oil rig. Nancy laughs. Like I said, she’s a challenge.
This is just the first meeting. There are a few more. The second time, she shows up with a checklist: Oral, this position, that position, stuff like that. She wants to just work through them. Get it done and over with. Sometimes we wonder if she needs a psychotherapist, or if Leo understands that fluffing an insecure woman’s ego a little comes with the territory. He can read people, react to them like a pro. She asks deeper questions about his line of work, and he answers passionately and sincerely, because he believes in its ability to do good, that a person like Nancy – or any person, really – deserves the type of comfort and pleasure he can deliver. Is this a friendship? A business partnership? What kind of relationship do they have? Do we need to define it? I don’t think we need to define it.
Performance Worth Watching: McCormack truly hangs with one of the greats here, pun possibly intended. It’s a credit to his charisma and thoughtful understanding of the Leo character – and the person within that persona – that he shares equal screen presence with Thompson, who, as usual, is terrific.
Memorable Dialogue: This revealing comic exchange:
Nancy: I’ve never bought anybody like this for my own-
Sex and Skin: There’s quite the graphic montage in the final act of this movie, capped with a shot of, shall we say, a fully committed Emma Thompson.
Our Take: We haven’t seen this much conversation-as-foreplay since the Before trilogy. Leo Grande has an obviously different dynamic, though, with its compassionate examination of sex work, and implications that stir up neo-buzzphrases like sex-positive and body positivity. Nancy used to tut-tut short-skirted girls at school, saying they mustn’t encourage the boys, and here she is now, grilling Leo about the money-for-pleasure trade in an attempt to assure herself that what she’s doing isn’t – what? Morally wrong? Not quite. Embarrassing? We’re on to something with that one. Uncomfortably revealing? That might be it.
But the film isn’t wholly about her very late blooming. We see Leo prior to their first meeting, “getting into character,” sort of transforming into a gentleman caller with a soothing voice and the skill to make a body feel like it’s the only one on Earth. He’s essentially a sheet of velvet atop a sensitive, empathetic (and surely well-hung) man acting out his belief that humanitarianism can be expressed via sex – or dressing up as a cat, as one of his clients asks of him. (To each their own, as they say.) Leo is thoroughly convincing in his assertions, both logically and emotionally, which is his way of taking a cutting torch to the steel walls Nancy has spent years fortifying around her. The third act features the type of histrionic, manufactured drama that breaks the movie’s spell of intimacy a bit, but for the most part, McCormick is as smooth as Thompson is prickly, and all their compelling, fascinating, ticklish talk teases what’s to come: the idea that personal growth occurs when body and mind become one.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is an insightful, funny and tantalizingly sophisticated endeavor featuring two superlative performances.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.