From the moment we meet Nancy Stokes, anxiously pacing around a tastefully anonymous hotel room, knocking back a minibar vodka and posing in the mirror to no great personal satisfaction, we can tell she’s a nervous wreck. And why shouldn’t she be? Nancy is a 55-year-old widow awaiting the arrival of a sex worker who’ll hopefully give her the first orgasm of her entire life. The male escort assigned to this monumental task is the “aesthetically perfect” young Leo (Daryl McCormack) and, as he’ll learn over the course of their four meetings, giving Nancy a chance to premiere her O-face means breaking down her well-established defenses.
If that sounds like the premise for a comedy or even a tragedy, it’s actually neither. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is a tender and richly satisfying charmer whose themes of self-acceptance and body positivity are delivered with a light and carefully crafted touch. Emma Thompson is at her prickly, vulnerable, fiercely intelligent best as Nancy, a stand-in for every woman who’s suppressed her sexuality out of shame, feelings of inadequacy or a need to please others. Unfolding almost entirely in one room, the film is a two-character study of sexual awakening and a heartfelt, yearning dispatch from the farthest corner of the age divide. It’s a sexually frank and intimate story told in a pleasingly mainstream manner that avoids greeting card clichés and empty “girl power” posturing.
One of the surprises of Australian director Sophie Hyde’s first film since 2019’s hard-partying Animals is that as much as we want Nancy to experience the pleasure she’s long been denied, she’s not asking us to love her, just to root for her. This is a woman who faked every orgasm during her 31-year marriage to her recently deceased husband, so who can blame her for being snippy, churlish and terrified? When Leo first glides into the hotel room, gorgeous and poised with a soothing Irish accent and piercing eyes, Nancy’s knee-jerk reaction is to sabotage the encounter. She peppers him with questions about being an escort. “Do you enjoy it?” “Do you feel demeaned?” “Have you been doing this long?” Leo has faced this line of interrogation before, when the unstoppable force of his charm meets the immovable object of a client’s anxiety. Ever the smooth operator, he effortlessly deflects Nancy’s queries with eminently sensible replies like, “You haven’t bought me, you’ve bought my services.”
Such is the dynamic in the early goings of Katy Brand’s probing, often tart, script. Nancy is a real person and Leo is a fantasy and as long as everyone acts accordingly, things should be fine. But Nancy is too anxiety-ridden to just sink into the moment, so the retired schoolteacher finds more intellectual ways to connect with Leo, starting with his use of $10 words like “reductive” and “empirically.” Soon her well-honed talent for self-deprecation and her fear of disappointment soften and the games begin.
The challenge with any two-hander is that both characters must carry their narrative weight. In Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, this is where things get muddy. Our allegiance and curiosity lie primarily with Nancy not only because her story of frustration is, to some degree, one we can all relate to. It’s also because it’s rare for any film, especially one featuring a middle-aged woman, to be so unapologetic about the joy of exploring one’s sexuality. When Nancy breaks the erotic spell during their second meeting by asking about Leo’s mother, his mysterious past assumes the burden of maintaining our interest. Leo’s reasons for becoming an escort, though, don’t hold a scented candle to Nancy’s fight to escape her decades in the carnal wilderness. The film’s pro-sex worker stance, while cleverly suggesting that both parties are captive to their long-held secrets, feels less like a bold statement and more like a manufactured way to give Leo an arc of his own.
The wonderful Thompson plays Nancy as a bundle of wildly contradictory impulses that still feel like they’re being experienced by the same person. She’s dry and acerbic in a recognizably British way but the awkwardness and self-owning are less frivolous coming from someone so heartbreakingly inexperienced. McCormack’s assignment is to hold his own against an international treasure, and he’s up to the challenge, refusing to reduce Leo to a Ken doll delivery system of late-middle-age sexual fulfillment. The Peaky Blinders vet oozes a velvety and unironic sincerity when Leo is providing the full boyfriend experience.
When Nancy insists on digging into Leo’s past, his runway-ready face droops in anger. All this risk-taking and spilling of secrets requires space, and Hyde gives it to them by staying out of the way. And as Nancy and Leo’s encounters get more emotionally and physically revealing, Bryan Mason’s camera replies in kind, loosening up and drifting around to suggest Nancy’s growing sense of liberation.
At the beginning of Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, Nancy is prone to protect herself with self-abasing jokes like, “There are nuns out there with more sexual experience than me.” By the end, whether Leo pulls off a miracle and sends Nancy to the carnal finish line is almost, but not entirely, beside the point. There’s beauty in merely being open to new forms of pleasure and in taking charge of your sexual needs. In Nancy’s case, satisfaction starts by looking in the mirror and unconditionally loving what you see.