Sex is an act, but pleasure is a state of being. Too often we treat them as synonymous, but they can both be so much more — or so much less. Less profound, less often, less obvious. You can know all about sex and nothing about pleasure, and that’s the distinction that Good Luck To You, Leo Grande explores with a keen eye and a big heart. Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) is a widow who has only had sex with one man, her late husband, and she aims to rectify that with the help of a charming young male escort named Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack, Peaky Blinders). What follows is a series of rendezvous in a posh hotel room as Leo shows Nancy there is more to desire than just lust, more to sex work than just sex, and so much more to life when you feel fulfilled. Whether he can help Nancy have her first orgasm is another matter, however.
If that premise sounds simple to you, then… well, it is. The movie really is that simple. With the exception of two scenes, the entire film unfolds in that hotel room as a true two-hander that almost seems better suited to a stage play. There is very little on-screen sex in the first two acts and a whole lot of talking, but with two generous performers at the top of their game and some subtly brilliant choices on the parts of director Sophie Hyde and writer Katy Brand, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande will sneak up on you in a climax that lives up to its name.
I’m just going to skip to one of my favorite things about the movie, which is the way it demonstrates effective consent. The first thing Leo does when he arrives at the hotel room door is ask Nancy if he can kiss her on the cheek — and he continues to ask her for permission whenever he takes things a step further. I want to call this out precisely because the film doesn’t, and it’s one of those details that could easily be missed. So many of the film’s finer points slip by without fanfare because as salacious as the subject matter seems to be on the surface, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is ultimately about normalizing and destigmatizing these concepts. Even when it does bring its topics into focus, like when Nancy and Leo discuss the nature of sex work and he assures her it isn’t embarrassing or demeaning to discuss payment for his labor, it’s always rooted in the specificity of the characters. Nancy’s unconscious biases and Leo’s worldly confidence become a dance that weaves us through a lot of difficult conversations and keeps the film grounded when it easily could slide into being more statement than story. Part of the journey of the film is Nancy’s whiplash of contradictions — her lack of experience, her neurotic schoolmarm facade, her vulnerability, and the safety net she falls back on, knowing that their relationship is transactional — as Leo uses his skill to navigate her personality and unearth the real desires that drive her. Then there’s Leo, a master at intimacy in all its forms, who nonetheless struggles to maintain his own strict professional boundaries despite Nancy’s oblivious pushiness. A lifetime of unsatisfying sex may be what brought Nancy to that hotel room, but the cure she needs isn’t finding a better partner — it’s finding herself.
Perhaps that’s why we don’t see the culmination of Nancy and Leo’s first session or any of the other sexual positions the pair finds themselves in until the very last meeting. Sex happens, but it isn’t for us to witness. There is a cheeky chasteness the film flirts with, hinted at by the old Hollywood-style title art, as though the film could easily cut from every kiss into a dissolve where the pair awaken fully clothed in adjacent twin beds. That a giant king-size bed takes up so much space in their world is almost a joke — another blank stage for them to tread in their two-person act of self-discovery — and it would be easy to assume the film is all about talking the talk without having to walk the walk. Which, of course, makes the third act hit all the harder. When the film does show us sex, it’s because Nancy has finally come to a point where she’s there to enjoy it — not to check something off her bucket list. Leo hasn’t been teaching Nancy to have sex, he’s been helping her understand herself by discovering the nature of passion. In that sense, sex becomes an expression of her desire, not simply an act, and that is what we’re privileged to witness. But because the film has also been about how many things that aren’t sexual can’t be bound up in our desires — our self-image, our self-confidence, our expectations and fears — the film can’t end with sex.
Instead, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande ends with Nancy standing in front of a mirror, naked, finally seeing herself not as a sum of her flaws but as a vessel of joy, and even though the film was most certainly not a stage play, I wanted to give Emma Thompson a standing ovation for delivering that moment so beautifully.
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is streaming on Hulu now.
Header Image Source: Searchlight Pictures (via YouTube)