Emma Thompson Hires a Sex Worker in the Thought-Provoking Comedy 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Emma Thompson Hires a Sex Worker in the Thought-Provoking Comedy 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'

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Published July 6, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Good Luck to You, Leo Grande - COURTESY OF HULU
  • Courtesy Of Hulu
  • Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

Romantic comedies are having a moment right now, feeding many viewers' eagerness for feel-good entertainment to counteract the parade of bad news. But sex comedies are rarer, especially ones that don't evolve in a romantic direction. The new UK comedy-drama Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, featuring a star turn by Emma Thompson, belongs to an even tinier subset of movies that take a frank look at sex work. Find it on Hulu.

The deal

She calls herself Nancy Stokes (Thompson). He calls himself Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack). Those aren't their real names. In a posh London hotel room, the middle-aged widow meets the handsome young man for a paid assignation.

A retired teacher of religious education and mother of two, Nancy has slept with only one man — her late husband, who refused to deviate from the missionary position. Her goal is modest: She'd like to experience her first orgasm.

Leo knows how to put nervous clients at ease, but Nancy poses a challenge even for his formidable skills. Will her prudish upbringing win out, or will he succeed in giving her some sexual healing?

Will you like it?

Written by comedian Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is basically a two-character play on screen. We never leave the hotel, where Nancy and Leo meet four times over a span of weeks. A third character — a hotel restaurant server (Isabella Laughland) — appears only in the last act.

With its confined setting, the movie risks feeling cramped, and its overall structure follows a familiar formula. Once Nancy finally starts enjoying Leo's company, the viewer knows they're headed for a falling out that won't be resolved until the last act.

Viewers who accept the film's staginess will be rewarded, though, because Brand and Hyde give the actors opportunities to shine while avoiding the largest potential pitfalls in the material. The screenplay maintains a firmly sex-positive attitude without condescending to Nancy, to Leo, or to its audience. Its humor isn't cutesy or gag-driven, and it doesn't present the big O as a remedy for all ills. This portrait of a middle-aged woman following her erotic desires is far less cringe-inducing than your average episode of "Sex and the City."

When Nancy and Leo first meet, Thompson flutters and babbles, all comic disarray, as Nancy struggles to micromanage every aspect of the situation. This is a woman who comes equipped with a to-do list of sex acts and a grim determination to check off every one. But Nancy isn't a caricature. When she contemplates the possibility of casting off her inhibitions — "Anything might happen!" — there's true fear in Thompson's voice. This is a woman who knows that anxiety runs her life, yet she clings to her neuroses like a life raft.

Where Nancy is prickly, Leo is smooth, soothing her with honeyed tones and careful body language. In response to her worried inquiries, he assures her he hasn't been trafficked or exploited. McCormack gives the character layers, though, and it doesn't take long to understand that Leo, just like Nancy, is striving to control the volatile situation. His smoothness is a performance, a way to ensure that clients return for more.

Leo is no stereotypical sex worker with a heart of gold, but he's also not faking his enthusiasm for his work. One of the movie's high points is a monologue in which he talks about what it means to him to satisfy his clients, which serves both as an affirmation of his profession and a paean to the acceptance of all body types and forms of desire.

Perhaps the movie lets Nancy off a little easy. While Leo does give her a firm lesson in boundaries, she never has to grapple with aspects of the modern understanding of sexuality that might really challenge her sense of the world. That said, this is a woman who needs to take baby steps toward trusting what her body tells her. When she finally finds what she's seeking, her sense of empowerment radiates from the screen.

Over the decades, Hollywood has made a handful of movies about older women seeking solace with younger men, but those desires are typically portrayed as a little grotesque, a symptom of societal decay (think of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate). Good Luck to You, Leo Grande takes the exact opposite tack, suggesting that carnal knowledge and autonomy make Nancy a better as well as a happier person — while helping Leo make a good living. While it may not be very romantic, that's a feel-good conclusion I'm on board with.