'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande' Is the Emma Thompson Sex Dramedy We've Long Deserved
In this lovely Sundance movie, Thompson plays a retired widow who bonds with a hunky sex worker.
In the first movie Emma Thompson ever made—the 1989 Richard Curtis rom-com The Tall Guy—she banged Jeff Goldblum on a piano. The acrobatic scene established Thompson as an uninhibited performer who would become known for her endearing blend of spikiness and vulnerability, but most importantly, she looked like she was having a blast. “I noticed at the time that all sex scenes, everyone was so angry,” she later said. “They’re angry! You look at people’s faces, you look at Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone… livid! So cross!”
Thompson is 62 now, and in a blissful, full-circle kind of way, she has made another movie in which sex contains no bitter edge. Nor does it resemble some idyllic movie fantasy. (A lot of people would like to bang Jeff Goldblum on a piano, or anywhere.) In Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which premiered this weekend at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, Thompson plays Nancy Stokes, a 55-year-old widow who’s spent her entire life faking orgasms. Her decades-long marriage was pleasant but passionless, leaving her a retired schoolteacher who wishes she had found the gall—or just the vocabulary, really—to ask for what she had been lacking. So Nancy takes matters into her own wistful hands, apprehensively hiring a young hunk (The Wheel of Time's Daryl McCormack) off the internet to show her what she was missing.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande takes place across four meetings in the same hotel room where chatty, anxious Nancy slowly grows more comfortable with the arrangement. At one point, she shows up with a list of sex acts she’d like to complete, insisting they go in order so as not to disrupt her preordained structure. (“No. 3: We do a 69, if that’s what it’s still called.”) As Leo works to soothe Nancy’s jitters, the two of them bond, revealing bits of themselves that exist beyond their financial provisions. What results is a talky charmer of a movie: sweet, thoughtful, honest, and saucy without ever feeling performatively provocative.
In fact, the sex in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande never gets as R-rated as you might think. Why would it when Nancy has never had any that’s particularly good? Written by comedian Katy Brand and directed by Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde (Animals), Leo Grande has too gentle a spirit to become pornographic, and yet it still ends on a strikingly sex-positive note—less the result of a euphoric orgasm (though there’s that, too) than a meeting of the minds. The only thing holding Nancy back was her limited self-perception, but 20-something Leo comes from a generation far more enlightened about the value of equitable sexuality. He enjoys his work, no matter the deep strain it has caused among his family. In turn, Leo's attentiveness allows Nancy to see herself anew.
Thompson hasn’t wanted for quality roles lately, being given scenery-chewing parts in Cruella, Late Night, Years and Years, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Bridget Jones’s Baby. But Leo Grande provides her meatiest character in quite awhile. Crucially, she doesn't play Nancy as just one thing. Nancy may be repressed, but in Thompson's hands, she is more than some aimless empty nester or lapsed prude awakened by a manic pixie dream boy. She has ideas—some right, some not—about the way the world works and her place within it, and those ideas inform the way she connects with Leo. The movie concludes on a breathtaking final shot that confirms Thompson hasn’t lost the uninhibited bravado she displayed circa 1989.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grandewent into Sundance with foreign distribution rights in place, and I suspect an American company will snatch it up soon enough for release later this year. If we play our cards right, maybe Thompson can make off with her first Oscar nomination since 1995’s Sense and Sensibility. Even if she doesn’t, Nancy Stokes’ newfound pleasure will soon be ours, too.