Like Salt-N-Pepa once said in their iconic 90s anthem – let’s talk about sex!
In a nutshell, that spiritual essence forms the basis of Sophie Hyde’s sex comedy film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, starring the legendary Emma Thompson and Peaky Blinders’ Dylan McCormack. Thompson plays Nancy, a 55-year-old retired schoolteacher and widower who yearns for a new adventure after the death of her husband. Unsatisfied with the rudimentary life her marriage entailed, she enlists the help of young, gorgeous looking sex worker Leo Grande (McCormack) hired to unlock the sexual experiences she feels incapable of. The plot doesn’t do Hyde’s film any justice. Beneath the simplistic exterior shell where it is easy to instil a moral authority from the offset is an intimate, charming, and refreshingly honest exploration of sex, its value and the connections that drive it.
There’s a dreamed convenience about its storyline. By filmmaking standards, Hyde’s film offers the best possible scenario. Thompson’s Nancy meets the perfect ‘sex saint’ companion in McCormack’s Leo, someone who willfully accepts his line of work and operates with a gentle and compassionate reassurance to ease her through her fears and anxieties. As with reality, that is not always the case for many people. Katy Brand’s script only presents the surface-level risks sex workers face, including the dangers they encounter, and the endless precautions used (like using a fake name) to protect themselves. But you never feel Hyde’s film acts in bad faith. Reassuringly at its heart is an attempt to bring such conversations to the forefront without demonising or, by the film’s smartly induced intentions, judgement.
You feel this essence from its opening – Nancy’s awkwardness and apprehension coming face to face with Leo’s swoon-able swagger and magnetic confidence. She tries to talk herself out of the engagement, going as far as saying “let’s get this over with”, mortified by such an act as paying for a sex worker versus Leo’s tender engagement to know his client and make her comfortable. While the sexual act they want to perform is laid on the table early on – doggy style, missionary, oral or the 69 (to which Nancy comically asks if they still call it that) – it becomes second fiddle as the characters get to know each other.
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Brand’s sharply written, sex-positive script, alongside Bryan Mason’s editing, goes through a ‘song and dance’. Call it dialogue foreplay as it sways back and forth between expectations and the current weight of their lives throughout its four chaptered chronicles. Like a good old-fashioned rom-com, the wit and charm are sprinkled throughout, leading to a playful build-up of explored emotions and deciphered taboos to hilarious effect. She questions whether he needs the pill, he assures her everything works fine down there. She goes to ‘freshen up’, he goes and eats a Mars bar (to her later disdain because she can’t stand the smell of it). Thanks to the confines of the pandemic, the enclosed room of the made-up Duffield Hotel (which suspiciously looks like a Premier Inn) gives a stage play quality and balance. It may look limited, but with no room to distract or interrupt provides a safe space to allow the natural intimacy to flow and for the audience to invest in.
There’s enough material for the actors to sink their teeth into, making its one hour and thirty-seven minute runtime feel like a breeze. Thompson and McCormack thrive as a formidable comedic pair, bouncing around innuendos and lived experiences (including Leo revealing the oldest person he had sex with – which made Nancy feel better about her age), keeping the engagement light-hearted and endearing. To no surprise, it works. Brand’s script heavily relies on the trusted formula of ‘opposites attract’, a Mrs Robinson vibe where the seduction is reversed. Not solely reliant on its character’s differing personalities, it infuses a notable generation gap, exploring how views and attitudes shaped our sexual opinions.
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It provides Thompson with one of the best roles of her career, bringing a beautiful and personal honesty in playing a woman who feels the tug and pulls of her emotions in a world that repeatedly defines what women should do and how they should behave. Nancy’s loveless marriage where she openly admits to never having an orgasm, has her questioning her worthiness and desirability. The insecurity, the self-doubt, fitting in with the rest of the world, how she views her body, to the demeaning words women use to devalue and hurt (e.g., slut) are trials of womanhood. Thompson’s deft touch and comedic weight bring relatable gravity to what is often left unsaid and can stick for an entire lifetime, afflicting a woman’s confidence, mood, and performance. Being the national treasure she is, she accentuates the depth and pathos for a character who slowly begins to accept herself and undo the long-held beliefs that were toxic and detrimental.
That sentiment taps into the film’s larger focus. Its fresh perspective comes from not having to appeal to the traditional sex comedies, where its pleasure gratification comes from the raunchiest moments committed to the screen. Hyde’s film – filmed through a female gaze – doesn’t rely on such tropes, nor is it graphic about its depiction. The confidence comes from how it examines sex through the eyes of an older woman. Where roles for older men are afforded the ageless guise and luxury for long careers within the industry, roles for older women are few and far between. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande relishes that opportunity.
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But the film wouldn’t be what it is without McCormack as Leo Grande. As the film’s sex therapist, there’s plenty of ‘eye candy’ to behold, but the much-needed balance and substance is found in the film’s quieter moments, where he drops the performative act for a measured, often reflective gaze in the mirror. Laced with emotion and trauma, it might only be a glimpse – given the film’s fun tone – but it sets in motion the expectant and revealing third act about personal boundaries, safety, and the consequential impact.
But in never losing sight of its comforting intentions, this self-discovery balm delivers a watchable and delightful piece of filmmaking with Thompson and McCormack on top form. The experience alone will leave a smile on your face.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is out in cinemas on 17th June.