Sophie Hyde’s follow-up to 2019’s Animals, Good Luck to You Leo Grande is an intimate, painfully frank, and often funny examination of female desire and exploration, with two staggeringly honest central performances from Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack.
Nancy (Thompson) is a relatively recently widowed former teacher. After thirty years of a marriage where sex was cold at best and perfunctory at worst, she hires Leo (McCormack), a young sex worker, to reach her own fulfilment. She doesn’t believe she could ever achieve an orgasm but wants to make her way through a laundry list of sexual acts to discover what she likes and wants.
It would be easy for McCormack’s performance to be swallowed under the weight of his co-star – an Academy award winner with decades of experience to his relative newcomer status – but he rises gamely to the challenge. Cool and calm as Leo, he allows peepholes of personality to shine through during unexpected moments. His upfront, almost blasé honesty when asked if he’s ever been physically afraid and his easy smile that gives way to moments of genuine emotion feels like a gradual peek behind a carefully constructed veil of persona.
Thompson’s performance as Nancy draws on the reserved English persona that has served her well since Love, Actually: she knows what she wants. Still, she is fundamentally unable to articulate it comfortably. She couches her desires in to-do lists and goals but will shy away in the moment – Changing the conversation to something decidedly unsexy, she rues that she “ruined the mood,” to which Leo bites back that he didn’t think there was a mood.
But there is more to Nancy than that charming awkwardness. She is spiky, forthright, and so decidedly correct in her opinions but painfully aware of the underlying contradiction at the core of her actions. A former religious education teacher, she used to assign essays on the morality of sex work to her pupils and lectured female pupils on their skirts, assigning blame when they would – in her view – seduce the hapless male teachers.
It makes for a fundamentally uncomfortable watch at many points, especially when the figure of Nancy is someone we can recognize as a figure in our lives. For those who grew up in an education environment that measured the lengths of skirts, refused to teach sex education, and even looked the other way when it came to inappropriate relationships, it is discomforting to see the inner lives of those who oversaw that environment playing on the cinema screen. It is not a film I expected to come away from in such a turbulent mindset – swinging between enjoyment and anger so easily in my reflections.
It is almost a disservice to play this off as a comedy – even more so if that turns audiences away from something deemed to be ‘light’. Yes, there are funny exchanges between Nancy and Leo. Still, there is an abundance of toe-curling moments, genuinely angry moments, and real shimmers of personality in these two people that are allowed to slowly unfold in the intimacy of the single-room setting. These two people unpack the best and worst parts of each other, and there is an underlying optimism that they will be the better for it.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is far from perfect, but the staggering honesty with which it approaches its subject and characters – exposing them in their worst moments but never judging them – is its strongest merit. By allowing these two characters to be flawed, complex, infuriating, honest, funny, and sentimental all at once, this film can genuinely upend your expectations of what it will be, and it triumphs with these two career-defining performances.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is now playing in UK Cinemas
by Rose Dymock