By Lindsey Bahr
Above photo: THIS IMAGE RELEASED BY SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES SHOWS EMMA THOMPSON, left, and Daryl McCormack in a scene from “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” (Searchlight Pictures via AP)
Female desire is not a topic that gets a lot of space in mainstream Hollywood movies. And the desire of women north of 45? Well, that’s been almost exclusively the province of Nancy Meyers, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. There have been others, sure, but it’s often either played for humor or scrubbed and sanitized of anything remotely carnal. Usually it’s some horrifyingly infantilized combination of both. It’s as though someone decided that audiences couldn’t possibly bear to watch a woman of menopause age acting or even feeling sexual and few have dared to challenge that notion.
That’s all to say that it is a small miracle that “ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” a smart, nuanced and adamantly sex-positive film about a 55-year-old woman, exists. In the film, written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, Emma Thompson plays said woman. Nancy is a retired religion teacher and somewhat recent widow who hires a handsome young sex worker, the titular Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), for a night.
We’re introduced to the characters, essentially the only ones in the film, in a perfect, dialogue-free sequence right before they meet. It tells you a lot about who they are and how they exist in the world, but not everything. There’s basically 90 minutes of wide-ranging conversations to follow that will help flesh out that whole conundrum.
Nancy arrives at the tasteful hotel room armed with a sensible overnight roller bag, wearing a modest pencil skirt, matching blazer and floral blouse (her negligée is, hilariously, a not so different floral print). She’s flustered and rumpled and nervous as she switches from her flats to heels and checks the minibar. Leo, meanwhile, is a picture of youthful confidence and effortlessly put-together, as though he’s just stepped out of an advertisement for a trendy eco-conscious clothing startup. Together they’re not much different: She starts questioning her choice, chalking it up to a fit of madness and wondering what it says about her. He, meanwhile, continues to be cool, calm, charming and armed with a perfect response to everything.
The main reason for this “fit of madness” is that Nancy has never had an orgasm. She doesn’t expect to get one from the session with Leo, but she’s found herself with a bit of freedom finally after following rules, both self and societally imposed, for her entire life and has a few things she’d like to do. Nancy is deeply unsatisfied with her life, her body, her grown children (one is too boring, one is too wild) and her marriage. Repressed isn’t the right word, but perhaps unfulfilled is.
She can’t quite see or appreciate how lucky she is to have found Leo, who is patient and clever and not easy to write off. This drives her a bit mad, too, having lived life according to a set of principles that she knows haven’t brought her happiness and are outdated but that she’s not quite ready to let go of yet. And she will at various points over the next 90 minutes sabotage things.
Leo, both as a person and a character, is self-consciously styled as a bit of a fantasy. He’s there to be whatever his clients need him to be. The film doesn’t go especially deep into the world of sex work, though there are some references to bad clients and how it can be more unsafe for women. It is, for the most part, a rose-colored glasses version of what it could be.
Thompson is truly better than ever and brings to life a complex and evolving person with humor, grace and a sharp edge. McCormack, meanwhile, is a star in the making. And together, the two are magnetic in this wonderfully adult film that is funny, sad, awkward, empowering and illuminating.
The truth is, you don’t really know what audiences want if you’re not giving them the option. “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give” made almost $500 million at the box office, after all. “Leo Grande,” in 2022, shouldn’t really be a revelation. And maybe it’s not, but I’m still celebrating.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” a Searchlight Pictures release on Hulu Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “sexual content, graphic nudity and some language.” Running time: 97 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.