Questions of intimacy and sex are explored but not in depth in this theatrical two-hander
Director: Sophie Hyde
Cast: Emma Thompson (Nancy), Daryl McCormack (Leo Grande)
A widowed, retired former RE teacher “Nancy” (Emma Thompson), hires a high-class escort “Leo Grande” (Daryl McCormack) to explore the opportunities in life she feels she has missed: namely, any sexual experience that doesn’t involve functional, passion-free couplings with her deceased husband; the positions and acts she’s heard about that he considered “demeaning” to all involved; and, above all, something called an orgasm. Over multiple meetings, the fragile Nancy and the smooth, charming, but personally guarded Leo tentatively explore physical and emotional barriers.
Hyde’s film could very easily be a theatre piece. Largely taking place in a single location – the hotel room Nancy has hired for their meetings – across four “acts”, it’s a film that relies heavily on the skill and chemistry between the two actors. On that front, it’s very blessed to have such skilled performers who play off each other with such generous and dynamic performances.
They’re helped by a witty script from Katy Brand, crammed with good lines. Nancy is a fusspot, sheltered and deeply self-conscious, who approaches everything from a teacherly angle, including drawing up a sexual “checklist” for their session (“attainable goals” as she puts it). Her middle-class, middle-age hesitancy around sex as something to feel ashamed about casts its mark over everything she says and does (“I don’t like anything going in places where things are meant to come out”) and she can’t shake her own shame and fears that she is exploiting someone (she worries she feels like “Rolf Harris” – a reference that hilariously flies over the head of Leo).
It’s a gift of a role for Emma Thompson, who delights in the witty (if theatrical) dialogue, but also sells speeches full of personal discontentment, bitterness and profound regret. Her early nerves – with a little pinch of guilt – at hiring this sex worker, slowly tip into an outpouring of painful regrets. Nancy is a woman who has lived her life by strict rules – rules that have left her deeply unhappy and desperate for a meaningful intimate relationship with someone to confide in.
Thompson, in a way that I’m not entirely sure the film does, also understands that Nancy is not as nice a person as she might believe she is. Her sadness is often counterpointed with bitterness, rudeness and a tendency to judgementalism. It’s a defensive shield for her deep unhappiness within – but it also perhaps suggests why she is as lonely as she is. This is Thompson at the top of her game, effortlessly funny, heart-rending and frustrating almost from moment to moment.
Her unease, and near-Catholic guilt at sexual intimacy and satisfaction, contrasts neatly with the smoothly professional Leo. It can’t be easy for a young actor to go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight, but McCormack plays Leo with a huge subtlety. Eager to put Nancy at her ease in their first meeting, we see him carefully but skilfully move between several different, possible, personas in search of something she will like. Flashes of personal intimacy and friendship he gives her always leave you guessing how much is real, and how much settling on a persona for his client. Brief moments of thoughtfulness show Leo reflecting on his own past – issues that will come to the surface in later sessions. McCormack skilfully walks the tightrope of playing a man with an invented personality, who adjusts his persona from moment to moment to best please someone else.
The main delights of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are in the (sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing) exchanges between these two, as Nancy constantly puts off what she paid for, partly due to not knowing if she wants it and partly being ashamed to ask for it. At its strongest moments the film uses this to explore our own societal feelings about the entwining between sex, shame and guilt.
After all, sex is something we all have very clear ideas about. And, just like we do with our bodies, often end up judging ourselves harshly against some imagined standard. The film gently argues that perhaps a world of high-class, shame-free, professional sex with someone who knows what they are doing – and can help a client enjoy something that many find quite stressful – might not be a bad thing. It says a lot that Nancy’s first assumptions about Leo tie into a fear that he might be being exploited or vulnerable in some way. It’s also interesting that Leo (at least as he claims – he of course may not be telling the complete truth) enjoys his work, because he sees it as a sort of ultimate people pleasing.
It would be a stronger film if it was able to do more of this thoughtful societal commentary. It never quite manages to really grapple with the issues it raises though, partly because it becomes a little preoccupied with the personal hang-ups of its characters (it would have also helped with Leo didn’t have his own past problems to deal with as well, which rather undermine part of the film’s point that we shouldn’t feel ashamed or that choosing a life like this isn’t always linked to past problems).
It also, by making it very clear that Leo is working at the very expensive end of the sex industry, perhaps takes a slightly rosy view of sex work, glossing over the risks and exploitation experienced by others in the industry with a couple of breezy lines. However, it’s also a very strong two hander, well-written with two excellent performances from McCormack and Thompson, both of whom are superb. It just could have been a little more.