Tribeca Film Festival review: Emma Thompson in ‘Good luck to you, Leo Grande’

A single movie

In Good luck to you, Leo Grande, Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack give powerful and intimate performances. Their gripping work pivots a prosaic story about a sex worker and her client into new territory.

First, Katy Brand’s screenplay strips away all tropes about sex workers’ abusive and impoverished backgrounds. Second, the film’s reversal of genres and ages upends, along with artistic genius, conservative notions of “proper” intimacy. Finally, Thompson’s daring audacity in revealing the beauty of her older body, untouched by the hands of a Hollywood or New York surgeon, is absolutely killer.

Good luck to you, Leo Grande enjoyed its New York premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival with a Q&A afterwards.

Ultimately, this film’s thematically ironic and compelling comedy thumbs its nose at a lot of things. Certainly, this twists the machismo and double standards of old men with young women. Furthermore, it challenges the fashion industry’s fascinating and damaging notions of beauty. Sardonically, the film twerks uber political conservatism, carried by men and women justifying sexual accuracy.

However, Thompson and the filmmakers keep it refreshing by not looking for leftist counter-arguments. Instead, director Sophie Hyde’s approach and Brand’s maverick script deal with the perspective of a widower. Indeed, by revealing Nancy’s desire to experiment with oral sex and sexual intimacy that leads to orgasm, the director remains funny, but realistic.

pretend fun

Nancy’s condition, in her fifties, of never experiencing sexual pleasure will probably resonate with a large percentage of women, who will sympathize with Nancy. Even nowadays, it might take a sure man to reveal that his wife faked the orgasm, as Nancy discusses with McCormack’s Leo. Indeed, the audience at the screening laughed when she showed Leo how she pretended to moan with her husband during sex. Women will identify; men, maybe not. But, as the movie seems to ask, was that ever a problem? True, Nancy’s husband “did the right thing”, and with satisfaction of his prowess, he rolled over and snored to sleep.

Although Nancy and her husband had raised two children, sex bored her. She confesses to Leo that raising children and teaching has produced a dull life. The film gently lays out Nancy’s hope of finally embracing daring, as she awkwardly engages with the gorgeous Leo Grande.

Initially, obstacles delay their intimacy. Her inexperience with sexual pleasure and her desire to investigate the sensuality of her body fill her with guilt and anguish. His fears and opprobrium when hiring Leo, along with his expert poise and control in gently unraveling his stiffness and self-loathing, make us love their unfiltered humanity.

(L to R): Emma Thompson, Sophie Hyde at the Tribeca Film Festival New York premiere screening of Good luck to you, Leo Grande (Carole Di Tosti)

A fascinating storyline that attracted Thompson

In the Q&A, the filmmakers revealed some deep themes that Thompson highlighted. The fascinating storyline appealed to her because of its uniqueness. In fact, personal sexuality, an important fact of life, remains occluded, stigmatised, politicized in some cultures – in the film, the British brand’s illuminating storyline focuses instructively on middle-class women like Nancy. To save their ego, they fulfilled the “normal” cultural customs expected of them.

Marrying, having children, working and sacrificing for the home, Nancy comes across as the right wife and mother. However, her goals as a young woman changed during her lifetime. She respected other people’s standards to please them. Disappointed by parts of her life, by not having fun, Nancy remains dissatisfied. Hiring someone to please her, she thinks, will satisfy an aspect of her life as she enters her final chapters before she dies. Plus, she hints that the experience could revitalize her and give her new meaning. Because indeed, contacting Leo Grande is an act of courage for her.

Will Thompson’s character overcome his fear?

The problem remains. Can she go through with sex and have her orgasm? For the first part of the film, Thompson convincingly reveals that Nancy can’t. So they don’t immediately jump in and have to talk. It’s only because McCormick’s Leo overcomes his guilt, fear, body hatred, and appalling cultural customs that they achieve intimacy, but not orgasm on the first try. For Nancy, this first step resonates in her soul. Leo helps her learn to despise her body less, a historic breakthrough for her. With humour, when they meet again, she draws up a list of firsts to try with enthusiasm. We laugh at her progress in this new adventure, while wondering how many women would follow Nancy’s bold choice in search of a man 30 years her junior?

Brand creates extraordinary characters that Thompson and McCormick inhabit with perfect vulnerability. They show that the power of Good luck to you, Leo Grande lies in its investigation of the inner and outer limits of the nullification of cultural mores. These retributive folk practices prevent men and women from living lifetimes of sexual understanding and pleasure. Leo Grande’s shrewd and emotional generosity and expertise offer solace as Nancy gradually blossoms and embarks on new sexual experiences. One can note in the film the possibility of vital and vital sexual encounters. Indeed, Leo and Nancy discover each other’s inner selves, which is surprising for both of them.

Orgasm without love?

Brand’s themes, beautifully done by the cast, develop throughout the film as the characters develop and learn from each other. The story reveals that optimal sexual pleasure for Nancy and Leo occurs with understanding, honesty, sensitive connection, and compassion.

With artistry, the film amazes with a “terrifying” conclusion: intimacy can be achieved with sensitivity and concern without “romantic” love. Indeed, love and what it means in popular culture (music, cinema, women’s fiction, etc.) infantilizes and distorts adult intimacy. The film reminds us that women’s sexuality can last longer than men’s, as Alfred Kinsey revealed in his studies and books on human sexuality. It provides perspective and a vital female voice through the dialogue between the two characters. Plus, it gives food for thought in our discussion of sex and pleasure for women as they age.

Listening to the actors, the director’s cinematic choices including the set, the close-ups, the natural lighting, the gradual character reveals as Nancy and Leo finally discuss their stories make for an intriguing and incredible work. Good luck to you, Leo Grande is a staple for its performances, beautiful writing, and sharp directing. Look for it on Hulu.

Gerald R. Schneider