Joyce Glasser reviews Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (June 17, 2022) Cert 15, 98 mins.
Since Michael Haneke’s Amour won its Academy Award in 2012, the number of films about older people starring older actors has increased exponentially, as have the subject matters. Now comes a film that courageously tackles the subject of sex and the self-conscious single woman, when the woman is a sexually unsatisfied middle-aged widow and mother of two grown children. The two-hander, let down by Katy Brand’s script and Sophie Hyde’s stagey direction, owes everything to the stars: Emma Thompson as Nancy Stokes and Daryl McCormack as Leo Grande, the professional sex worker Nancy hires to make up for lost time.
The set-up is the hook. A widow and retired former religious education teacher, Nancy Stokes nervously waits in her hotel room for a one-off (funds are limited) rendezvous with male prostitute Leo Grande. Leo’s business is selling himself, and he prides himself at being a one-stop shop for all sexual needs. Has Leo Grande met his match?
The film is divided into Meeting 1 (which Nancy claims will be the last), Meeting 2 and Meeting 3, although these captions are a lazy substitution for what the décor, costumes and body language of the actors should convey. We should be able to immediately differentiate the second meeting from the first. Nor does Hyde’s filmmaking do much to get us in the mood for sex, although that might be the point.
Nancy, who was a virgin when she married and never had affairs, faked orgasm with her husband throughout their marriage and now wants to find out why people rave about sex. Yet her frigid body betrays her desires and makes a mockery of the school matronly check list of goals to accomplish in the limited session.
Throughout the film the same game is played: Leo sets the mood and Nancy, in various Freudian ways, shatters it. When she does not simply hide in the bathroom, she speaks of her dull husband and son. And then she tries to get intimate with her would-be lover, not with her body, but by asking him the probing questions. These also destroy the mood and begin to irritate the unflappable professional.
For Leo has self-esteem issues, too. When Nancy is off changing into a negligee, he examines his perfect body in the mirror, not really questioning Nancy’s resistance, but taking stock of the fruit of years of labour in the gym. Physique counts for a lot, but it’s Leo’s ability to get through a client’s psychological barriers and “read” them that enables him to charge high rates. If letting yourself go won’t work, they can try role playing, a technique he suggests in order to break through Nancy’s fear.
Nancy shudders at the idea. Role playing is too seedy. Or perhaps it is just what she has done her whole life as priggish RE teacher, housewife, orgasm-faking wife and mother to two children she dutifully pretends to love. And in many ways the role suits her as Nancy seems to have no outside interests, is patronising and is not much fun.
Leo has his work cut out for him telling her she is sexy, when she has built a life upon not being sexy, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leo, however, is the consummate role player. If Nancy is not Nancy’s real name, Leo Grande is a professional pseudonym. His image must be the perfect lover whose only thoughts are with his client’s needs. This isn’t a regular date, and his personal life is no one’s business. Naturally, Nancy asks more questions than a half term quiz. Her motherly or school matronly curiosity might be another stalling mechanism designed to destroy the lustful mood, but her revelation that her son is a bore touches a sore spot in Leo whose family may or may not believe that he works on an oil rig. To his mother, he is a failure, not a thriving entrepreneur who has found his niche.
Unfortunately, Leo’s big secret about his personal life is not only anti-climactic, but half-baked and unconvincing. So is most of the dialogue and the sex (when there is any), which we want to be a lot funnier. Isn’t that why comedienne Katy Brand got the job? When a former student waits on Nancy and Leo in the hotel coffee shop, Nancy’s honesty is not cathartic, but embarrassing. It goes one step too far, like a formerly repressed woman’s need to brag about her transformation.
And while the film is, on one level, about the ability to discover one’s sexuality late in life, it is also in many ways ageist.
‘I don’t want an old man, I want a young one’ Nancy insists to Leo, before revealing her disdain of ageing. ‘I’m just a seedy old pervert – I feel like Rolf Harris!’ Though Leo’s naked body sends shivers down Nancy’s half-dressed spine, she cannot appreciate it without being reminded of her own sagging body where the flab is more apparent than the muscle tone.
‘I want to play at being young again,’ Nancy admits, but there is no indication that when she was young, she was any happier or freer. When she tells Leo how she used to scold the girls for wearing short dresses she seems to have convinced herself that it was for their protection against would-be rapists and not out of envy for their thin legs. At one point – and this surely isn’t the point of the film – you begin to wonder whether her husband’s refusal to engage in oral, anal and experiment sex was less his lack of imagination than a fear of offending his wife.
And while Thompson is 63 her character is fifty-five, as though being middle aged is more acceptable than being a sexagenarian. Moreover, teachers are not pensioned off until age 65, although her husband’s legacy might have enabled her to take early retirement. And while Thompson’s nudity is admirable, there are 55 – and 65-year olds who are not models, who have genuinely (and naturally) great bodies.
It is odd that a film about sex is not more arousing, but perhaps Hyde’s aim is to make us squirm with Nancy rather than enjoy it. Nor does all that change when, as the climax, (pun intended) of her makeup free, un-photoshopped performance Thompson courageously bares it all, confronting her own imperfect body.