Good Luck to You, Leo Grande review: Emma Thompson hires a gigolo in this sweet, nuanced comedy
Dir: Sophie Hyde. Starring: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland, Charlotte Ware, Carina Lopes. 15, 97 minutes.
“I want to do a blow job,” Emma Thompson’s Nancy announces in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. “Get that sorted.” She throws those words out as if she were reminding herself to get the oil changed in her car – mechanically, even a little irritably. Nancy’s husband died two years ago. He was the only man she’d ever had sex with, and none of it was particularly good. All of it missionary. She’s never had an orgasm, and doesn’t expect to anytime soon. But there’s a laundry list of sexual activities that she feels compelled to work through, as if they were obligatory steps to earning her womanhood badge. So she hires a sex worker, who calls himself Leo Grande.
When Leo (Peaky Blinders’s Daryl McCormack) describes Nigella Lawson as “sexy” without any deflating qualifiers (“…for her age”), Nancy’s taken aback. Who the hell is this guy? Which Jackie Collins novel did he and his perfect set of abs just step out of? Good Luck to You, Leo Grande could easily have been packaged up as the kind of feel-good feminist power anthem that privileges personal liberation above all. But screenwriter Katy Brand, a regular on the British comedy circuit, hasn’t settled for easy sentiment. Empowerment is only one piece of the puzzle, which together forms a refreshingly nuanced portrait of sex work, desire and self-perception.
Nancy, a retired religious education teacher, describes how she used to assign her pupils the essay question, “should sex work be made legal?” They’d always reply with the same thing: “Although the moral issues remain up for debate, the legalisation of sex work would ultimately provide protection for sex workers and help eradicate trafficking and abuse.” We’re led to believe Nancy shares that view.
But, though morally sound, there’s a certain emotional detachment to that answer. Sex work, even among the progressively minded, is still treated as something to be kept out of sight and out of mind. There’s crushingly little agency given to those who pursue it. And so Nancy, when faced with Leo’s easy confidence, immediately launches into a full-blown interrogation: is he an orphan? Has he been trafficked? When was the last time he saw his mother? Is she exploiting him? She demands Leo give up the veil of anonymity so essential to his work – both are using fake names, of course – purely to satisfy her own conscience.
Sophie Hyde, whose 2019 directorial effort Animals tackled toxic friendships with equal savvy, makes the most of the film’s fixed location. We’re confined entirely to Nancy’s hotel room, minus a brief sojourn to a cafe and the hotel’s bar. The place is sterile but elegant, as mid-priced hotels tend to be. There’s nowhere, really, for these characters to run. Nothing, either, to distract them from the bare-faced truth of what’s brought them here.
Thompson has always done flummoxed like no other, and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande isn’t any different. But less expected from the actor is the harshness that creeps into her voice at certain moments. Who exactly is this woman outside this room? Beyond this conversation? We’re left to wonder. McCormack, meanwhile, does a sublime job of essentially playing two characters: the self-assured and chivalrous Leo Grande, and the man who lives behind him. We’re offered only the smallest of glimpses. “I made him and I’m proud of him,” he says of Leo. Hyde’s film is generous in that way – it understands that he deserves to feel good about himself just as much as Nancy does.
‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ is in cinemas from Friday 17 June