Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a well-groomed, middle-aged, middle-class white woman, nervously exchanges her sensible shoes in a Norwich hotel room for a pair of stiletto heels. She could be an executive preparing for a conference keynote.
Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a beautiful young biracial man, finishes his coffee in a cafe, closes the notebook he’s been writing in, shrugs on his backpack and walks through the city. He could be a writer working on a novel.
I really enjoyed this ambiguous way Sophie Hyde introduces the protagonists of her new comedy-drama feature. We often judge others – and ourselves! – by appearances, which sets up power relations based on economic and cultural capital.
She was a teacher. He was a student. But when Leo knocks on Nancy’s hotel room door, he’s there to teach, and she’s there to learn. Leo is a sex worker, and Nancy has booked him to discover pleasures she has never experienced in her aridly repressed life and marriage.
As Leo repeatedly reminds Nancy, this isn’t about him – what’s being explored in this film is an older woman’s sexuality. The setup is clichéd: Nancy has never had an orgasm, nor any kind of physical intimacy. Emma Thompson plays her beautifully: a woman who’s accustomed to social power, but excruciatingly alienated from her body and desires.
Now, two years after her husband’s death, Nancy has impulsively decided it’s not too late, and booked Leo’s company. Hyde’s delicately observed film follows what happens in this hotel room over four sessions.
Thompson’s rich performance overlays multiple Nancys: hopeful, horny teenager; compliant wife; exasperated mum; bossy teacher wielding a list of requested sex acts like a curriculum to plough through. We gradually sense that beneath the self-deprecating humour, and the anxiety that makes her shiver like a whippet, is something cruel and bitter.
Nancy has imprisoned and diminished herself, and so she resents and belittles others. She finds her adult son dull, and is exasperated by the fecklessness of her adult daughter, who’s currently living a bohemian existence in Spain.
Late in the film, a waitress who serves Nancy and Leo in the hotel’s cafe turns out to have been one of Nancy’s former students, and Nancy can’t help a reflexively snobbish quip that she can’t have done a very good job if the student has ended up working in a hotel. The clever original script by English comic actress and writer Katy Brand is full of these satisfying, revealing character moments.
Daryl McCormack’s witty performance is a perfectly matched foil for Thompson. He’s almost uncannily beautiful and serene, but more impressively, McCormick makes Leo’s professional performativity clear. Leo has a finely honed control of himself as both agent and object of desire, and is always alert to the small ways he can please his client. One of the loveliest sequences in the film is when Leo dances with Nancy.
The pleasure of this film isn’t really in identifying with Nancy’s sexual awakening, though Thompson does make us feel for her. It’s the way Leo and Nancy anticipate and evade each other’s judgments, as the power balance shifts back and forth between them. And in inviting us to watch, the film anticipates and parries the viewer’s judgments, too.
On this front, Leo Grande is much more sophisticated and critically engaged than Renée Webster’s similarly themed How to Please A Woman, from earlier this year, which also follows fiftysomething women who hire male sex workers.
In Webster’s film, the men are enthusiastic amateurs-turned-pros, and the women are entrepreneurs who see unfulfilled female desire as a market. The film blithely ignores boundaries between labour and leisure, and between financial transactions and acts of care and solidarity.
By contrast, Leo Grande challenges Nancy’s association of sex with shame and disempowerment, and sex work with economic exploitation. She’s self-aware enough to call Leo a ‘sex worker’ rather than a ‘male prostitute’ or ‘rent boy’, but she can’t help seeing his job as the result of some past trauma or alienation, and she even frets about whether he’s been trafficked.
Their physical closeness and enjoyable conversation confuse her into seeking emotional authenticity from Leo: she pushes him for information about his other clients, and for details of his ‘real self’. In what becomes an intrusive projection of her own maternal angst, she becomes fixated on Leo’s relationship with his mother.
Leo has to remind her, at first gently and then brusquely, that he’s not selling himself; he’s selling a character that can be whoever his client wants. As he firmly tells Nancy, his clients don’t pay to exploit his body, but to enjoy his finely honed skills of interpersonal performance.
The racialised power dynamic set up by the film’s casting never really surfaces in this narrative. Instead, race acts as a fraught undercurrent to Leo’s and Nancy’s contest of power. I want to be generous, and argue this is part of the film’s effort not to be didactic – for Leo’s race to be something the viewer notices themselves noticing.
In many ways, this film feels like theatre – not just because of the limited hotel-room setting, but also because the physical co-presence of actors and audience builds an intimate connection between performance and spectatorship. This can apply equally to Leo’s profession.
Hyde, and her cinematographer Bryan Mason – who is her romantic partner as well as fellow co-founder of creative collective Closer Productions – understand and explore the power of the gaze: what it’s like to allow yourself to look, and to be looked at. The camera lands softly on small gestures, moments of touch and physical proximity.
When Leo takes off his shirt for Nancy, he reminds her that his beauty is a professional tool: he works out because his clients like how a trained body looks. He wears his to-be-looked-at-ness like a costume, while Nancy hates to be perceived. At last, she learns that a gaze can be playful and curious, rather than punitive and prejudicial. And this is what finally unlocks her capacity for pleasure.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
M, 97 mins
Director: Sophie Hyde
Writer: Katy Brand
Producers: Debbie Gray, Adrian Politowski
Distributor: The Reset Collective
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is in cinemas from Thursday 18 August.