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Let's Talk About Sex

Nick Wall/Sundance Institute

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

The optics aren’t great. Here we have a movie about a mixed-race Irish sex worker teaching a posh white British woman about her capacity for physical pleasure in which race is not mentioned once. The major concern expressed by the woman is for the man’s relationship with his family, who do not know that he does sex work, which you would not think would be brought up so much, but that is a red herring to distract from the more obviously uncomfortable issues. So with difficulty, we’ll set the temptation to use the word “colonizer” to describe Emma Thompson’s character aside, and assess the movie on its own terms. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is a two-hander between one of the best actresses of our lifetimes and a total unknown (unless you watch the Irish soaps) who burns through the screen with the impact of a new Marlon Brando. It’s about a former teacher who has waited for her husband to die before she begins the exploration of her own body. She pays for the privilege, of course, but with her privilege she thinks it will only cost her money. Leo, the handsome young man she hires (Daryl McCormack), will have to teach her more than one lesson.

Nancy (Ms. Thompson) and Leo meet in an upscale hotel suite in an English market town. When Leo arrives, radiating a calm that is only matched by his physical beauty, he takes Nancy’s measure very quickly – although that’s not difficult; she is so beside herself with nerves she cannot stop gabbling. She has spent a proper but loveless life frustrated without the pleasure she so badly wants, even though it seems very easy for a lot of women she doesn’t respect. Her suffocating sense of entitlement manifests in a fear of her own body silently expressed through Sian Jenkins’s excellent costumes, resentment of her children and former students, and a nasty passive-aggressive streak that makes Leo swallow hard to maintain his self-control. The main thing is she has never had an orgasm. Leo is confident he will change that. Nancy assures him he will not. That’s about all there is to it, but obviously with actors of this calibre and a subject this interesting it’s more than enough.

The script is by Katy Brand, well-known in Britain as a crass TV comedienne (her debut show was called “Tittybangbang”), but this reveals depths hitherto unguessed. Director Sophie Hyde’s previous movie was “Animals,” another two-hander also highly enjoyable if you overlook some not-ideal racial optics, but the presence of Ms. Thompson here makes the surface objections to the material melt away. By the end, if Oscars were given for sheer bravery, Ms. Thompson’s third one would be in the bag (the marketing spoiling what she does is idiotic). Mr. McCormack is a huge discovery – the Brando comparison might be hyperbole, but it’s been quite some time since someone has made such a strong impression with both his physical presence and his acting ability. As with young Brando there’s a sense of wildness – though here it’s carefully controlled – as well as a thorough enjoyment of the impact of his body has on others. But the weakness of the film is that the deck is stacked in Nancy’s favor. The focus is her history, desires, mistakes and whether or not she will get what she wants.

Both “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and “A Love Song,” about widows trying to find happiness again, had their world premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but there the resemblance pretty much ends. This is an indoor movie, where relentless talk makes up for slightly dull visuals, while “A Love Song” understand the power of silence. The widow in “A Love Song” also had little money, less expectation of happiness and no power differential between her and her choice of partner. Ms. Hyde seems desperate to present Nancy and Leo as equals, as if a woman purchasing sex is not making the same unseemly choices as men who do. The multiple discussions about Leo’s free will and his assertion that only his time, not he himself, can be bought oversalt the soup.

An edgier movie would have had Nancy pick up Leo on a dating app or in a bar. The issue there, of course, is not that a 50something woman still has immense sexual appetites, but that a young man would be kind about them, and her, for free. It’s amazing that this movie gives us a world where race needn’t be mentioned but the casual misogyny of men on the sexual prowl can be erased with cash. But the fantasy that money can change that unpleasant truth for middle-aged women is this movie’s whole purpose, and you can’t blame it for trying. It’s so well-made, and Ms. Thompson is such a spectacular actress, it comes very, very close.


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