‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ Film Review: Emma Thompson Shines as a Widow Seeking Intimacy

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·4-min read
Sundance
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It’s only January, but Sundance entry “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” may well be sparking awards chatter for 2023 over Emma Thompson’s marvelous turn as Nancy Stokes, a widowed, retired secondary-school religious-education teacher who decides to hire the titular escort, played by Daryl McCormack (“The Wheel of Time”).

The script by comedian Katy Brand is essentially a two-hander that takes place almost entirely inside a single hotel room, and could be easily reimagined as a West End play. But the cast and crew — led by Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde, who brought “52 Tuesdays” and “Animals” to Sundance in 2014 and 2019, respectively — have put so much care into making the most within the piece’s limited confines that one could hardly deride the final product as stagy.

The film presents its early scenes in near–real time, opening with Nancy and Leo separately managing the jitters over their first encounter; she’s in the hotel room fussing over her rolling luggage while he hums behind the window of a coffee bar. He makes his way to her room at their agreed upon time and asks to kiss her on the cheek. Sensing her unease, he assures her they’ll have a great time. She offers him a drink from the mini bar, and they exchange pleasantries after moments of awkward silence. She worries that he feels demeaned. He wants to know her fantasy.

From the start, neither character feels like an archetype: In a wine-colored pencil skirt suit with a brown floral silk blouse, high heels and salon-coiffed hair, Nancy has seemingly primped for a date. Leo notices and compliments her Coco Chanel scent. He is dreamy, gentlemanly and well-spoken, wearing a crisply pressed Mandarin-collar shirt and a warm smile. He listens attentively, providing the boyfriend experience, and tells her that she is empirically sexy. When she asks him if she is a disappointment, he gently plants a kiss on her lips. But she’s anxious and wants to get it over with. She doesn’t want to chat a bit first, expressing doubts that they have much in common.

Despite claiming to be a fastidious organizer, Nancy wavers constantly about following through with their arrangement, to the point that viewers may start wondering if there will be any sex scenes at all. She apparently needs more than just a sex partner; as their rendezvous unfolds, she finds in Leo a companion, a confidant, a counselor, a motivational coach and a surrogate son.

Even as Leo carries on with his bit as dream lover, Nancy is intrigued by the secretive young man behind the façade and what he plans to do with his life. Despite his setting boundaries to keep things professional, her curiosity and perhaps maternal instincts get the best of her, and she begins prying into his personal life and relationships with his estranged mother and brother.

The film is wordy, but Brand manages to sustain interest. The only part that feels like a bit of a reach is when Nancy goes off on how she used to assign the essay question, “Should sex work be made legal?” to students in her ethics lessons. “Every year, 30 essays came back all exactly the same: ‘Although the moral issues remain up for debate, the legalization of sex work would ultimately provide protection for sex workers and help eradicate trafficking and abuse.’” It feels ever so slightly after-school-TV preachy, but Thompson sells the lines well.

Far from being a dowdy crone caricature, Thompson wears Nancy’s age with grace and dignity, delivering a brave and nuanced performance as the character works through all her anxieties and repressed desires for pleasure and intimacy. In one of the later scenes, Nancy runs into former pupil Becky (Isabella Laughland), waitressing in the hotel restaurant. Nancy promptly changes her tenor and transforms into the stereotypical scolding tutor right on cue. It’s fascinating to contemplate how we all perform in our assigned roles to various extents in our daily lives, and it’s thrilling to watch Thompson switching gears in a snap, adding even more layers of complexity.

Best known for Netflix’s “Peaky Blinders,” McCormack holds his own against Thompson’s showstopping portrayal, recalibrating moment to moment in accordance with Nancy’s every whim. The performance disarmingly conveys that his character is emulating a romantic leading man for work and that a sex worker’s interpretation of that role would naturally be unpolished compared with that of a trained actor.

The hotel room set partly recalls “The Father” and “The Souvenir Part II,” simultaneously naturalistic and — one senses movie magic at work — not at all claustrophobic. It’s an intimately scaled film that still demands to be seen on the big screen; never once does it leave the impression that it would be best suited for a streaming platform. Hyde’s refined and attentive direction, Bryan Manson’s crystal clear cinematography, and Stephen Rennicks’ sparkling score have done wonders cultivating the sensual tone and texture.

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” concludes with Nancy and Leo revealing their true selves and parting ways after leaving indelible impressions on each other and the viewers, with a profound and resonating meditation on expectations, disappointments, fulfillment and shame.

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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