Saturday, 3 September 2022

Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (2022) - Movie Review

It’s quite impressive how well this film turned out. I feel it’s important to open with that because there are quite a few things here that, if the production team weren’t as synchronised as they are, could’ve turned this into a complete shambles.

The characters, for instance. As the story is essentially a two-person play, featuring an older woman and a young sex worker where about 90% of the… action, as it were, takes place in the same hotel room, the actors have a lot on their shoulders here. But even beyond the scope of the story, they’ve been handed some doozies.

Emma Thompson is Nancy, a retired Religion Education teacher who wants to feel something for a change, and she spends a lot of the film either awkwardly describing her lack of sex life up to this point, or being so unaware of the nature of sex work (or, given a later scene, service work in general) as to be quite cold. The film is naturally about her getting past those blemishes, but if this performance wasn’t as earnest, sweet, and quite vulnerable in all the right places, this could’ve turned out disastrously for a film that touts being pro-sex work. Thompson has always had a firm grasp on the acting craft, but this is some gymnast shit.

Ditto for Daryl McCormack as the titular Leo Grande. Starting out with him strutting down the road over the credits, he exudes this enviable and, fittingly enough, sexy confidence, which McCormack sells like an absolute champion. He works well with his character’s role as something of a young teacher to Nancy, essentially being the mouthpiece for writer/creator (not a credit I’ve seen on a film before, but with how dialogue-heavy this is, it fits) Katy Brand’s stances on all things sex. But as his own backstory gets revealed, he ends up with a variant of the old-and-tired ‘all sluts have daddy issues’ cliché, which unintentionally plays into some of Nancy’s misconceptions early on. But again, because he brings such sincerity and conviction to those words, he manages to make it palatable. More gymnast shit.

There’s also the sub-genre on hand to (initially) worry about too. British sex comedy has a long and colourful history, from the Confessions and Carry On series to Fat Slags and Sex Lives Of The Potato Men, and it is something of a regular punching bag in critical circles. Hell, with those last two films, they were so bad that they had people openly questioning if the British film industry at large was in trouble. But what makes this one work, and indeed one of its main thematic points, is that the sex here isn’t used as comedy. Or, at least, director Sophie Hyde doesn’t treat the audience as if boobs and bare arse are substitutes for actual jokes.

Instead, she and Katy Brand use the interaction between Nancy and Leo as impetus for getting into issues of sexual repression, self-image issues, patriarchal selfishness in the bedroom, and the messiness of religious moralising on sex. It’s not sensationalised, but part of the actual drama. As presented through Thompson’s pure nervous energy on-screen, it felt reminiscent of On Chesil Beach, where the sheer awkwardness of the situation she’s found herself in has her reaching for things to distract from the terror of the moment. It’s an adult coming-of-age trick right out of the Apatow playbook, and it works well with the characters’ power dynamic, along with adding impact to the words because it all feels so genuine.

It also lines up with a lot of what I had to say on How To Please A Woman, about how older women get ignored (at best) in discussions of sexual topics, and it gives me a chance to add a little coda to something I said there. When I said that people’s kinks, even the mundane ones like nudity, are all valid (provided consent, I mean), Nancy’s apprehension here shows why that addendum is quite important: Because even the most vanilla sex can be a lot to emotionally deal with. The risqué, naughty, nature of sex is itself part of the pleasurable aspect of things, but there’s a difference between feeling a little dirty during the act, and still feeling dirty afterwards. Apprehension like that is difficult to get past, no matter how old you are, and it’s part of the reason why sex work is so vital for a healthy society: Sometimes, when you don’t know what to do, you need to call in a professional.

While I hesitate to say that I liked this as much as How To Please A Woman, it works for a lot of the same reasons, combined with a palpably awkward and sensual atmosphere offered by Bryan Mason’s work as DOP and editor that makes this theatrical premise worthy of the big screen. Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack are delightful on-screen, there’s a good balance of laughs and cringing relatability, and a lot of what it has to say about the nature of pleasure and those who provide/experience it rings true.

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