Let me preface this review by saying that I normally don’t gravitate toward films with explicit sex scenes. I’m no prude, but a lot of films depicting graphic sex scenes are often gratuitous and exploitative, mostly designed for shock value. But when I first heard about Good Luck To You, Leo Grande coming out of Sundance, I was immediately intrigued by the premise and casting.
One of my all-time favorite actresses, Emma Thompson, has always been so refreshingly candor about body positivity, sexism, and ageism. Here she tackles a taboo subject along with newcomer Daryl McCormack. Thompson masters self-deprecating humor so perfectly even in her real-life interviews, and she puts that talent to good use as a retired religion teacher Nancy Stokes whose husband recently passed. The film didn’t waste any time in setting up the scenario, showing Nancy arriving in a hotel room looking nervous and unsure of her decision about hiring a sex worker. McCormack is appropriately dreamy as Leo Grande, so breathtakingly beautiful that it practically takes Nancy’s–and surely most female viewers–breath away with his stunning, expressive eyes and buff physique.
The first act goes by like a breeze as Nancy and Leo immediately get into back-and-forth banter which is quite hilarious thanks to screenwriter Katy Brand‘s frank and witty script and Thompson’s spot-on delivery. Like most women, myself included, we are often insecure about our bodies and are squeamish talking about sexual pleasure. She admits to Leo that she’s never had an orgasm and claims that even nuns would have more sexual experience than her. As an Asian woman growing up with a strict grandmother, I can definitely relate to Nancy’s reticence about sexuality in general, let alone baring one’s body and having intimate relations with someone she just meets.
The filmmakers approach the morality issue of sex workers through a string of Nancy’s probing questions. She grills Leo on his choice of profession and what his mother thinks of what he does for a living. Leo takes Nancy’s um, penetrating inquiries in stride. He appears confident and happy doing what he does and thinks of his job as more than just providing physical pleasure, but something that’s beneficial for his client’s mental well-being. In fact, as Nancy is clearly skittish about being intimate with him, Leo takes his time reassuring her to appreciate who she is and does his best to make her feel comfortable. For a moment I even thought this guy would make a good therapist!
The chemistry between the two leads is crucial and it’s truly a delight watching Emma and Daryl in this minimalistic film where they’re mostly confined in a room together. Nancy’s constant fussing of her body can be aggravating but somehow Emma’s delivery comes across as endearing, funny, and relatable. I commend director Sophie Hyde for taking on such a delicate subject matter and delivering it with equal whimsy and poignancy. While the topic is very much about sex, the script also talks about issues of identity. Obviously Leo Grand is a persona that Daryl’s character has fashioned himself to be, and naturally, he wants to keep that image, that dream of a ‘perfect man’ alive for all his clients. The film’s most tense moment happens in the third act when Leo thinks Nancy oversteps her client-worker boundary that threatens the image that the real ‘Leo’ has built.
In the end, the takeaway I get is that one’s sexuality and sexual relationships are so much more than about sex. In Nancy’s case, these sessions with Leo are cathartic after decades of sexual and even emotional repression. If I were to nitpick, however, I thought the scene towards the end involving Nancy’s former student (Isabella Laughland) feels a bit too heavy-handed. While I think it’s good that someone like Nancy broadens her sexual horizon, recommending a sex worker to a former student seems inappropriate.
In any case, the last time I saw a film with this refreshingly frank view of sexuality is 2012 The Sessions where Helen Hunt plays a sex surrogate to a paralyzed man played by John Hawkes. That was 12 years ago, so a film like this is quite a rarity. It’s even rarer that the script, direction, and performances all mesh so well together in a light, breezy 1 hour 37 minutes!
The structure and dialog-heavy scenes often remind me of a play and I could see this film working as a live theater piece as well with the right director and cast. As to be expected, there’s full-frontal nudity in this movie as both Emma and Daryl act out their scenes fully nude. Yet it’s viewed with a mindful, albeit unfiltered female lens that it doesn’t feel gratuitous nor exploitative. On the contrary, it’s meant to affirm the ‘body and sex positivity’ message of the film and I applaud Emma for her chutzpah.
Dame Emma Thompson is truly an international treasure and this movie shows just another reason why. As for Daryl McCormack, well I hope this movie would give a serious boost to his career the way Bridgerton did for Regé-Jean Page. I’d also love to see more of director Sophie Hyde and screenwriter Katy Brand‘s work in the future!
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is now streaming on HULU.
Have you seen this movie? I’d love to hear what you think!