Sundance: A widowed schoolteacher hires a young sex worker (the excellent Daryl McCormack) in a sweet chamber piece about modern intimacy.
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Former schoolteacher Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) is about as comfortable with her sexuality as she is with the aging body that has been forced to suppress it her entire life. So when this recent widow splurges a chunk of her savings on a night in a hotel with London’s finest male escort – hoping that he might introduce her to the elusive orgasm that her late husband never bothered to look for, and that she’s always been too ashamed to find on her own – a part of her is naturally repulsed by how well things turn out.
Not only is the young man who comes to her room “aesthetically perfect,” Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) is also clever, charming, and convincingly attracted to the post-menopausal prude who’s hired him for the evening. But what really gets under Nancy’s skin is that Leo seems to love his job. He isn’t dirty or desperate, nor is he doing sex work to put himself through school; on the contrary, he’s one of the most beautiful people who Nancy has ever seen in the flesh, he embraces his profession with the same ardor that he does his clients, and he articulates the virtues of giving pleasure with all the self-actualized calm of a wellness podcast.
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Nancy expected a human dildo who could give her an orgasm off the assembly line in exchange for her pity – someone repugnant enough to justify a lifetime of bad sex (with the same man) and a career spent chiding her students about the length of their skirts. What she gets is a warm and well-adjusted stranger who is more responsive to her needs than even she has ever allowed herself to be. And Nancy can’t help but resent Leo for that. While his flawless skin and Abercrombie model physique are agonizing enough on their own, it’s his confidence and compassion that send her over the edge; every flicker of pleasure that Leo gives her leaves Nancy more upset that so much of her life has been surrendered to shame.
Possibly the sweetest fairy tale about a sex worker this side of “Pretty Woman” – if much less retrograde, never quite as broad, and ultimately far more interested in interrogating the strictures of its fantasy – “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is a touching little two-hander that does right by its title character even if the lion’s share of the conflict in this audience-friendly charmer hinges on Nancy’s seesawing relationship with herself. Closed off one minute and yearning to be held the next, the film likewise teeters between the staccato iciness of Harold Pinter and the momcore joy of Nancy Meyers without fully surrendering to either one of them, a back-and-forth which produces its own kind of uneasy fun.
Of course, it’s all a bit hard to swallow at first. Not only is Leo enough of a people-pleasing dreamboat to make Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe seem like some Windows 95-era vaporware by comparison, but even Nancy is a shade too perfect in her self-deprecating nervousness. Unobtrusively directed by Sophie Hyde from a slim yet peppery script by Katy Brand (whose single-location piece was neither adapted from a play nor written with COVID restrictions in mind), “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” never feigns neo-realism, but its banter tiptoes along the fine line between breaking the ice and breaking the spell. “A very fine vintage,” Leo smirks after watching Nancy pour a glass of wine. “It’s just from the minibar,” she responds, before realizing that her new friend isn’t talking about the drink.
Leo is pure fantasy, Nancy is a splash of cold water to the face, and they balance each other out so well that even the most natural moments between them can’t help but feel schematic. As they get to know each other across four rendezvous in the same hotel room, their respective masks will slip off, their roles will start to blur, and the film around them will become more affecting as a result.
If the getting-to-know-you phase is less nuanced than the later parts when Nancy and Leo effectively start cosplaying a gender-reversed “Closer,” the film’s two lead actors (in a cast of four) game out a lifetime of mystery in every shot. Thompson is unsurprisingly excellent as a woman whose sexual disappointments betray a deeper self-denial. Her Nancy is funny even when she has one foot halfway out the door, and as compelled by Leo’s body as she is confused by the wisdom he brings to it; both the film and Thompson’s performance are at their best whenever Nancy, a retired educator who’s awed by all that this young man is able to teach her, still insists that she knows better than him (“Sometimes I wonder if what you young men need is a war,” she offers in response to Leo’s overdeveloped self-understanding).
For his part, Leo turns out to be more than just the mellow pectoral dream guy he plays on the job, but the loveliness of McCormack’s potentially star-making performance is that he never lets his character feel like he’s lying, even when he’s eliding the truth. Leo isn’t shy about indulging his client’s dreams, but that doesn’t mean their time together is somehow illegitimate. While his name might be fake (and the backstory it covers up a bit threadbare), the intimacy he’s there to provide is real as can be, and the movie around him is able to withstand its more fantastical impulses because it strives to make those fantasies real as well.
The average sex worker may never be as beautiful as McCormack – the average movie star may never be as beautiful as McCormack – but a world that allows for pleasure and encourages people to share it with each other doesn’t feel so far out of reach. The only thing standing in the way is our shame, and while that isn’t as neatly conquerable in real life as it is on screen, it’s still encouraging when a nice morsel of a movie like “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” proves totally unafraid of looking at itself in the mirror.