Good Luck to You, Leo Grande stars Emma Thompson as a retired, widowed religious education teacher in her sixties who books sessions with a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) because, for the first time in her life, she would like to experience good sex. Her husband was a roll on, roll off sort of fella, she’s never slept with anyone else and her body, she says, “feels like a carcass I’ve been dragging round all these years.” You have to admire her courage. I don’t think I’d even have the courage to book a hotel room for two hours in the afternoon. I’d probably pay for the night so that no one would know. Or would a week be safer?
Written by author and comedian Katy Brand, and directed by Sophie Hyde, this is a riveting film and an important one. Thompson, as you’ve probably already read, appears fully naked, at sixty-three, which is practically unheard of. I can’t recall the last instance. Maybe Anne Reid in The Mother twenty years ago? And, generally, older women are the least developed characters in any script, because God forbid they should have needs and wants or be allowed to still be working on who they are. But this peers into all that with such sure-handed fearlessness it’s wholly impossible to look away.
In the opening sequence Nancy (Thompson) is already in the hotel room she’s bravely booked for two hours, awaiting the knock on the door. She catches sight of herself in the mirror and is dismayed. By the time the knock comes, she is a bag of nerves and can’t keep a lid on her panic. She tells Leo (McCormack) he can leave and she’ll pay him anyhow. But he is calm and unperturbed. What is your fantasy, Nancy? “To have sex. With you. Would you mind?” She can’t comprehend why he’s doing this work. Are you a trafficked orphan with low self-esteem? Were you brought up in care? Does your mother know? Do you feel demeaned? How old is your oldest client? “Eighty-two!” Leo parries her questions charmingly. He is whoever she wants him to be. That’s his job. His back story is not relevant. Or is it?
This is essentially a two-hander in which the pair meet for three sessions. It is about sex. For one meeting she arrives with “attainment goals” and a to-do list of sexual positions including “a 69, if that’s what it’s still called. I don’t know.” She has five positions on her list, which Leo says is optimistic given they only have the two hours, but “we can certainly make a dent in it, Nancy.” (I love Leo!) But it’s not just about sex. It’s also about their conversations, which cover everything: shame, desire, boundaries, judgment, Nancy’s thwarted moment of sexual rapture when on holiday as a teenager, her moralizing life as a teache, and whether it’s OK to say she finds her children boring and a disappointment.
There are some wonderfully comedic moments. Nancy says she is resigned to never experiencing an orgasm. Never has, never will. Leo is bemused. “It’s not a Fabergé egg, Nancy. People have them every day.” The script crackles as a connection develops and while Leo Grande is a fake there is nothing fake about what he does.
The third act, which partly takes place away from the hotel room, is possibly the least successful, as it tidies up the characters rather too cleanly, and sometimes the detail seems wrong. Do any women still wear slips? But there is genuine chemistry between the two leads and McCormack is insanely charismatic while Emma Thompson is very Emma Thompson but also world class. Quite apart from her unclad courage, she captures the dilemmas of age with subtlety and nuance and I’ll definitely have what she’s having. Or would do if only I had the courage to book a hotel for two hours in the afternoon.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.