“I’m all for prostitution.” “Why?” “Because everybody wins. It doesn’t interest me personally, but I think it’s a good thing.” So says the French author Michel Houellebecq. So there’s sex work sorted out for you. It’s a good thing! Still not sure? Here comes Good Luck to You, Leo Grande to change your mind, ever so gently, in the politest of terms, within the most appealing parameters. It’s the most acceptable face of whoring, not just decorously English but positively Anglican in its piety. At the Sundance Film Festival, where it was so well received, it must have seemed quite exotic.
It’s a two-hander, set almost entirely in a hotel room. Emma Thompson, the national treasure, 63, plays Nancy Stokes, a prim and proper retired RE teacher, whose husband died two years ago. Although they managed to have two children, now grown up and averagely unsatisfactory, the couple’s sex life was always dismal, unrewarding for Nancy and perhaps for her late hubby too. She has never had an orgasm or any other sexual partner. Now she wants to find out what she’s been missing, not with a man of her own age either but a hot young one. So she’s booked a hotel room and splashed out on two hours with a sex worker.
Enter Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack, 29, Isaiah Jesus in Peaky Blinders). She’s struck lucky! Or, more likely, being the careful type, has done her research. He’s perfect. Not just incredibly fit and handsome but ridiculously charming and nice too.
Even though Nancy has got this far, she is still beset with doubts, anxiously asking him if he feels demeaned, while accusing herself. “I’m just a seedy old pervert. Just go! I feel like Rolf Harris all of a sudden.” “Rolf Harris?” says Leo, puzzled – as he also is when she tells him her marriage wasn’t a furnace of passion that burned itself out but more like the bottom drawer of an Aga. “A what?” he asks.
Only when Nancy suddenly remembers the only time in her life she was ever aroused, when she was 20, on a family holiday in Greece and a waiter felt her up, does she melt. And then all goes well, clearly. At their second meeting , Nancy reads Leo a list: “1) I perform oral sex on you. 2) You on me. 3) A 69. 4) Me on top, 5) Doggy style.” “That sounds very achievable,” says Leo suavely. They begin to reveal their real lives to each other too.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, so touchingly performed by Thompson and McCormack and sympathetically directed by Sophie Hyde, was written by the earnest comedian Katy Brand, a former evangelical Christian. A great Guardian favourite, she observed in that paper in 2014 that we are not very good at talking about sex in this country, but that comedians should try it and be prepared to take the consequences.
So here, in the course of celebrating female pleasure, is this almost inadvertent paean to sex workers – or, at least, certain sex workers, those working for women.
The positive message is underlined a little heavily at times. Nancy testifies that her body is no longer the carcass she has been heaving around for 30 years but “a thing of wonder, a playground of delight, as you say”. Leo, she says, is “some kind of sex saint” and his services should be available on the local council. Would a man in his 60s having a girl in her 20s supplied to him on the same rates seem quite such a good idea? The film doesn’t go there at all, its only concession coming when Nancy asks Leo if sex work isn’t more dangerous for women? “It can be,” Leo grants.
Instead, the movie builds to an image that, as Woman’s Hour has noted, is bound to become iconic: Dame Emma’s first ever nude scene, looking at herself in a full length mirror with pleasure and acceptance at last, ready now to bid Leo farewell and good luck. Her posture deliberately recalls that of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Eve in the Garden of Eden, Thompson says. As well as making this revolutionary display of an unglamorised, older woman’s body, she simultaneously strikes a blow for the full bush.
A lovely moment, and best understood, I think, as a riposte to another movie, tending the other way. In the popular fantasy Pretty Woman, 41-year-old mogul Richard Gere not only saves 23-year-old prostitute Julia Roberts but is saved by her. “Right after he climbed up the tower and rescued her, she rescued him.”
Pretty Woman ends with raucous celebration and a command to us all to follow suit – “This is Hollywood, so keep on dreaming!” The credits of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande just as proudly assert that it was “filmed entirely in Norwich”. That’s a retort too, I hope.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is released on 17 June
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down