A strange thing happens to a woman, at least in the eyes of youth-obsessed Hollywood. When she becomes a wife, a mother, or – heaven forfend – turns 50, she is no longer allowed to be perceived as a sexual entity in her own right. She is simply expected to fade into the background, devoting her energy to the people in her life rather than attending to her own needs, gracefully stepping aside for the younger generation. Try to think of how many films you’ve seen that revolve around the sex life of a middle-aged woman – you likely won’t need all ten fingers to count them off. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is special for that reason alone, with its empathetic examination of a woman who has become utterly detached from her own sexuality, as well as its nuanced depiction of sex work. But none of this would be half as impactful without the two lead performances that ground the film: the always delightful Emma Thompson reaching new levels of emotional vulnerability and an impossibly charismatic turn from Daryl McCormack in a breakthrough role.
When we begin Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) sits alone in a hotel room, so nervous that she looks as though she might spontaneously combust. A knock is heard at the door, and if anything, it makes things worse. Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) has arrived, a sex worker she has hired in a desperate bid to have a positive experience with intercourse after a lifetime of disappointment and resigned obligation with her late husband who was, shall we say, inattentive to her needs. Nancy Stokes is a retired schoolteacher (and one who taught religious education, at that), and this is the most salacious thing she’s ever done in her life. She doesn’t know where to look.
The entirety (or near to) of the film takes place in this one tastefully decorated hotel room, and the production is staged almost as though it were a play. It relies on the performances of its two leads (and really, the only two characters with more than a moment of screentime) for all of its emotional impact – both Thompson and McCormack unquestionably deliver on that. There’s something so incredibly moving in how Thompson depicts all of Nancy’s sadness and regrets, the deep longing she has for a younger version of herself that she didn’t even appreciate until it was gone. We feel every one of her insecurities and anxieties, covered in trademark dry humor and a desperate grasp for some semblance of control.
And beyond anything else, she delivers a rare gift. This is perhaps one of the only times (in an English language film, that is, not in France, where they’re more evolved about That Sort of Thing) where a middle-aged woman is shown completely naked, not as a joke or a depressing moment that is supposed to make us instinctively shudder at the ravages of age, but as a simple acknowledgment that bodies are incredible things and it is a waste of precious time to constantly think of all the ways ours fail to meet our expectations.
Guiding Helen each step of the way is the utterly perfect Leo Grande, a handsome young man who seems to be part sex worker, part life coach. Despite Nancy’s overwhelming nerves, he is completely unflappable and somehow knows the exact right thing to say in any situation. Utterly committed to delivering a fantasy for his customers, it can be difficult to tell the facade from the real person, which Nancy struggles with. Even though she has hired him for sex, she also clearly seeks an emotional connection, wanting to know him beyond the Leo Grande persona, even when he would rather keep his private life private. He seems perfect, but he still is an actual human being at the end of the day. McCormack does a great job of building a false exterior but never making it feel like a lie. He perhaps would not be in this hotel room were he not being paid, but in everything he says and does, he comes across as genuine – no mean feat.
The success of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is entirely on the shoulders of the two lead performers. Both Thompson and McCormack allow themselves to become vulnerable in ways that are a rarity in mainstream cinema, going beyond a light-hearted comedy about a middle-aged woman hiring a hot young sex worker and tapping into something universal. Both characters highlight a desire to reframe their identities – Nancy longs for not necessarily her own youth, but the feeling of being young and vibrant and full of possibilities, while Leo leans into his new persona in an attempt to escape the pain of his past. Despite the emotional content, the film never feels weighed down by it, making Good Luck to You, Leo Grande a light-hearted, entirely unexpected delight.