Good Luck to You, Leo Grande Review – Heartbreaking, Infuriating, Funny, Extremely Sexy, and Most of All: Empowering

Australian director Sophie Hyde has utilised the notion of sex as a manner to gain self-knowledge in her three feature films. In her debut feature 52 Tuesdays sixteen-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) explores her sexual awakening while her parent James (Del Herbert-Jane) goes through gender transition and also finds sex an important expression of grounding himself in his gender. In Animals (adapted from the novel by Emma Jane Unsworth) two women use sexual expression as a way to undermine patriarchal notions about how women should act. The central tension of the film comes when one of the characters, Laura (Holliday Grainger) gets engaged and disappoints her best friend, Tyler (Alia Shawkat) by seemingly succumbing to traditional gender roles. In Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, written by British comedian Katy Brand, sex and the idea of pleasure is focused on how older women have their sexual natures almost obliterated after losing their youth.

Fifty-five-year-old recently widowed ‘Nancy Stokes’ (Emma Thompson) decides to do something adventurous and by hiring a young and “aesthetically perfect” sex worker, ‘Leo Grande’ (Daryl McCormack) to experience pleasure that she lacked in her marriage (she has never had an orgasm). Nancy has led a mundane life wherein she has been disappointed by the non-legacy of her career as a religious education teacher and finds her children disappointing; her son for being too dull, and her daughter for being too bohemian. Nancy has also soaked up a great deal of internalised misogyny that she unwittingly passed down to her students.

When she meets Leo she’s a nervous wreck. Unsure of how to proceed with any kind of sexual adventure she forestalls the act of sex by asking questions of the young man. The questions range from the genuinely curious “Who was your oldest client? How do you manage to get aroused by your clients?” to condescending “Did you go to school?” to invasive “What do your family think you do?” Leo takes the questioning with surprising equanimity up to a point. He’s not afraid to gently slap back against Nancy’s assumptions, and as the film progresses and he becomes more emboldened, he takes Nancy to task for her behaviour.

Essentially a two-hander filmed in one location, a posh hotel room, the film relies on the talents of the leads to bring Brand’s emotional, and at times extremely comic, script to life. Brand’s characterisation is extraordinary – we feel Nancy’s despondency and her eventual growth as organic. Where it is most interesting is how it gives depth to Leo. He has layers of trauma and loss that are uncovered, but the film isn’t interested in presuming that his pain drove him to sex work. Instead he is proud of Leo Grande, a fantasy that is desirable. Brand and Hyde pay his character great respect and in many ways he’s more interesting than Nancy, if for a certain quotient of the audience, less relatable.

Predictably, Emma Thompson is stellar as Nancy. Over the course of the hotel meetings we watch a woman finally coming into herself and learning what it is to own her body and her sexuality. However, without the immensely layered performance of relative newcomer Daryl McCormack the film would be lacking balance and a sense of veracity. McCormack never struggles to equal Thompson’s monumental skill as an actor. In matching her in terms of performance he imbues Leo with a sense of equality in the film. Leo may be hired by Nancy, but he is in no manner her inferior.

So many women carry around shame and hatred for their bodies; the shame deepens as they age, and their desirability becomes tied up with their worth as a human. Nancy reminisces about a power she didn’t even know she possessed as a teenager, the power of seductive youth, and how by following all the rules set out for her at the time she squandered it. In a film filled with many poignant moments, Nancy standing naked in front of a full-length mirror embracing her body is a testament to how vital it is to own oneself at any age and to realise that desire does not end at forty for woman.

Sophie Hyde has once again directed a film that is revelatory and true. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is an emotional journey not only for the characters but also for the audience. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, funny, extremely sexy, but most importantly the empowerment it provides for Nancy and Leo gives the film strength and dignity.

Director: Sophie Hyde

Cast: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland

Writer: Katy Brand

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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