Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack weave effortlessly through a sizzling, intimate two-hander about the therapeutic nature of sex work.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.)
There’s a moment early on in Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande in which one of its leads says to the other, “Desires are never mundane.” It’s a simple line, but one that defines the film and the relationship at its core well; Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) desires a new experience and Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) exists to fulfill that desire. Their interactions are awkward at first, as with any arrangement between a customer and someone providing a new service, but gradually shift with time and further interaction.
This is the realism of Leo Grande’s profession as an escort and Katy Brand’s script deftly explores what exactly it means to navigate an encounter with someone inexperienced. Every scene between these characters exists to deepen their relationship and reveal a little more about themselves, staged something like a stage play from the grand majority. This isn’t a knock on the lovely little chamber piece, as Hyde’s intimate gaze is important to why the film’s so appealing. There’s a simplicity to it that simply allows the two actors to play off each other excellently, allowing them to run away with the show.
Though its entire premise is based on the notion that Nancy is crippled by her neurosis, age, and experiences, Thompson and McCormack have a chemistry together that is palpable from the moment they first meet. Brand’s dialogue is playful, yes, but it’s also refreshingly honest about the hesitations that come with being an older woman trying to sleep with a younger man. And for all the films that treat sex work as a form of therapy for the protagonist, it’s nice to see one that actually engages with how the sex worker deals with their customer rather than keep it one-sided. Grande actively discusses the nuances of sex work, from establishing his boundaries and ensuring his customers adhere to them to the way he performs different roles for different customers.
Hyde’s intimate gaze is important to why the film’s so appealing.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is the kind of film that wants to offer both fantasy and realism, and is relatively successful at both. Its gaze allows for brief flashes of eroticism as something of a tease to both the audience and its sheltered protagonist, and even a whisper into an ear and a hand on a collarbone is delivered with just the right amount of tension. Bodies are frequently in various states of undress (with Thompson’s decision to go full-frontal offering one of the most poignant moments in the film and a bold statement on what it means to embrace one’s own beauty in spite of their insecurities), but they’re never on display in an exploitative manner.
It’s as respectful as a fantasy gets, and, to steal a gag from 30 Rock, it’s essentially “porn for women”, which Jack Donaghy notes is designed to show women a handsome man who will listen to women’s “one insatiable need: to jabber.” And jabber is exactly what one could call Nancy’s outpouring of her anxieties and frustrations onto Grande’s shoulders, as he tries to please her (be it through oral sex or playing the role of good conversational partner).
In adhering to the conventions of any good romantic comedy (or, in this case, dramedy), the film does sometimes feel a little too convenient and scripted regardless of the boldness of how it addresses its subjects. But Hyde and Brand are smart enough to avoid any of the pitfalls of the genre. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is the kind of film that manages to be both light and heavy, about something and about very little at the same time, and that’s precisely why it works so well. The declaration that “pleasure is a wonderful thing that everyone should have” can sound a bit corny, but there’s something about a film like this that feels both honest and revolutionary simply because of how well it’s made.