Good Luck to You Leo Grande

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a refreshing take on sex lives and sex work

Sophie Hyde’s film is sex-positive in a way that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago.

Emma Thompson stars alongside relative newcomer (unless you’re watching Peaky Blinders) Daryl McCormack in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, an intimate exploration of sexual desire. Uptight and newly widowed, Nancy books an afternoon with a sex worker in a posh hotel. As the film opens, Nancy fiddles with nervous energy and insecurity. She’s never had an orgasm, not by herself and certainly not with a partner. With her husband dead, she finally feels free to explore her neglected sexual identity. Set over four meetings, Nancy slowly opens up to the charming Leo Grande. She’s self-critical and eager to work through a long list of sexual experiences she’s yet to have.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande reflects a larger cultural shift in many ways. It’s a movie that’s sex-positive in a way that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago. Not only does the film, quite radically, attempt to approach the full spectrum of sexual desire of an older woman honestly, but it also presents a reasonably rose-coloured light on sex work. Despite alluding to family issues, Leo Grande is happy with his work and satisfied by it. As Nancy remarks, with a certain glibness, he comes across as a bit of a sexual guardian angel — a deliverer of miracles and comfort. McCormack sells the role well, maintaining a nearly unflappable coolness even under pressure. 

Released through Amazon, the movie has a glossy-TV feel. It’s brightly lit and has the feeling of a clever chamber piece. The film almost exclusively centres on conversations between Nancy and Leo Grande, getting to know each other and bridging a generational gap informed by very different attitudes about sex and desire. While we only briefly see the characters outside the confines of a hotel room, they feel fully embodied, with complete histories of family, relationships and regrets. 

As a central character, Nancy has a bit of an edge. Thompson’s performance quivers with nervous, self-loathing energy. She can’t seem to sit still and often struggles, at least at first, to look Leo Grande in the eye. As we learn more about her personal and work life, we understand the ways her sexual dissatisfaction reverberates in all aspects of her life; she is closed off, prudish and prone to moralizing. In particular, she recalls an incident with her female students where she chastised them for wearing their skirts too short. When she first tells Leo Grande this story, there’s a vague attempt to defend her actions. She tries to frame the story as one that presents her as an upstanding moral leader rather than a woman who used her position in power to inflict shame on a new generation of young women.

The resolution of this storyline does not quite ring true, however. While the movie does not attempt to sugarcoat Nancy, it also ends up being very forgiving of her mistakes, even if there’s a deep feeling that they potentially caused longstanding damage to those around her. Of course, Nancy is a victim of a patriarchal society, but she also became an agent of it. In the pursuit of feel-good empowerment, the movie flattened out her thornier qualities. 

It’s rare for a movie to showcase such frank vulnerability without appearing exploitative. Despite some issues regarding the closure of some of Nancy’s storyline, the film does a good job of creating complex characters that channel assumptions and defy easy readings. Both lead actors give nuanced, layered performances that require unusual physical openness and a certain level of “performance within a performance,” as both characters take on assumed names for the encounter. 

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande hopefully ushers in a new kind of movie exploring sexual identities — one that looks beyond the most conventional mid-20-something heteronormative take that we’ve been subjected to for the past 50 years. ■

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, directed by Sophie Hyde)

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is currently streaming on Prime Video in Canada.

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