Good Luck To You, Leo Grande isn’t quite as raunchy as it probably could – and should – have been, but it’s still a delightful step forward for sex positivity on screen.
Sex. It’s a touchy subject, especially on screen. We immediately get a bit awkward and fumble our words when someone mentions intercourse, but thankfully, Sophie Hyde’s excellent Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is here to confront all our insecurities and fears about sex, especially as we grow older.
Emma Thompson plays Nancy who books sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) to fulfil her sexual desires and fantasies after her husband has died. Nancy has never been sexually satisfied and has never had an orgasm, but that’s what Leo is here for.
Hyde did the wonderful Animals a few years prior, which also premiered at Sundance. Leo Grande is the neater and safer of the two films, but it’s still a remarkably funny, sensitive and insightful look into the sex life of an aging woman as well as sex work in general.
Nancy is insecure of her body and even more insecure in her desires and sexual needs, but at every turn, Leo assures her, compliments her and most importantly, asks for her consent. He asks if it’s alright to touch her and to kiss her. By doing this, Leo gives Nancy the reigns, lets her be in control of how this all unfolds, which is not only crucial in terms of sexual violence, but also allows Nancy for the very first time decide how things happen. It’s a small thing and Hyde and writer Katy Brand by no means make it into a big point, but for women everywhere, it means a lot.
Thompson is as good as she always is. For most of the film, she plays Nancy almost as a version of herself. She’s witty, fidgety, but always approachable. There is an especially tender moment towards the end of the film where Nancy finally looks at herself in the mirror, really looks at herself, taking in every crease and every imperfection and finally recognises the beauty of her body. It’s incredibly moving and something that almost everyone will be able to relate to.
While Thompson is good (when is she not?), this feels very much like McCormack’s show. His performance is nuanced and delicate in all the right ways. While Brand’s script still leans a little bit into the cliche that all sex workers are somehow damaged, McCormack offers a relaxed and positive look at sex work and the people who go into sex work and why they might do it.
Leo Grande isn’t massively complex with its themes; they’re all laid out, nice and neat, early on and it never really diverts from them. It’s the film’s frank and honest discussion of sex and female desire that makes Leo Grande so enjoyable. It talks about pleasure as something that everyone deserves and even makes some interesting, compelling notes on why we should legalise sex work in the UK.
If there’s something to criticise, it’s perhaps mostly to do with the premise itself. Leo Grande is very heteronormative in its approach to Nancy’s sexual freedom. She hasn’t been able to orgasm even on her own and while Hyde and Brand make sure to hammer down that Nancy grows into a sexually confident woman who can bring herself pleasure.
But the idea that Nancy still requires a traditionally attractive, younger man to unlock her sexual pleasure seems a little reductive in a film that otherwise feels so groundbreaking. Leo does pull out a tiny, very inoffensive sex toy from his bag at one point, never to be used, and it feels like Hyde could have pushed a bit further with this.
There is an amusing and fun montage of the two having raunchy sex at the very end of the film, but other than that, Leo Grande is very conservative and almost prudish with how much nudity and sex is on screen. Of course, we were never gonna see Emma Thompson give a blow job to a much younger man in closeup, but a film that celebrates sexual freedom this much could have done so much more with its portrayal of sex. Sex is implied more than it is shown, but thankfully, the two actors have great chemistry which carries the film even when it threatens to get a bit stale.
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is in cinemas June 17.