Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – Emma Thompson hires sex worker in charming comedy

Emma Thompson gives us a very personal, emotionally generous and intimate performance in this entertaining theatrical two-hander from screenwriter Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde. Despite some moments of sentimentality and naivety, it is really watchable and conceived with a flair for commanding the audience’s attention. It’s not exactly right to call it a crowd-pleaser, but Brand – who has her own record in comedy writing and performance – has a comic’s sense of how and where to elicit an audience response.

Thompson plays Nancy, a middle-aged widow and former RE teacher who after a lifetime of unsatisfying conjugal relations with just the one man (her late husband) has decided to pay for discreet afternoon sex in an upmarket Norwich hotel room. With her brisk and schoolteacherly need for education and self-betterment, Nancy feels that she needs to experience some more sex before her death, including the most important and climactic sexual experience of all. Thompson makes her a cousin of sorts to the woman who secretly cries in the bathroom in Love Actually, because Alan Rickman is cheating on her, and to the nurse who had sex with Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy. Daryl McCormack (Isaiah Jesus from TV’s Peaky Blinders), enigmatically plays the young man she has hired online who goes by “Leo Grande”. Until relatively recently, “escort” was the term used if you wanted to avoid the p-word, but Leo, of course, with unselfconsciously polite professionalism, uses “sex worker”.

Leo has the tolerant, smilingly indulgent manner of a therapist who has seen and heard it all, or a concierge in a cool boutique hotel who can procure anything you like as Nancy babblingly confesses to him her unhappiness, her disappointment with her children and with herself, and her one frustrated moment of sexual rapture on holiday in Greece when she was 20. She is torn between delaying or abandoning this whole absurd idea and the need to get on with the sex right now (“I can’t bear the suspense!”) And, in fact, the audience might share that impatience, as it is the depiction of bought sex itself which is going to test this movie, rather than lines of bittersweet dialogue.

As for Leo, Nancy says: “You’re some sort of sex saint – are you real?” And again, we might well wonder the same thing. Just as the customer in the bought sex transaction is the one with the power and the capital, so Thompson’s character is the one with the wealth of backstory, and Leo sometimes seems blank, almost like a Stepfordian robot. We are waiting for Leo’s serenely trouble-free manner to crack, and of course crack it does, but the film refuses the traditional explanatory revelation of unhappiness, and shows us that some people selling sex can and do remain happy.

Related: ‘I knew I was in good hands’: Peaky Blinders’ Daryl McCormack on shooting sex scenes with Emma Thompson

The movie is at its strongest in showing us the eerie process of Nancy losing her inhibitions as she gets to be Leo’s regular: not her sexual inhibitions, but her personal inhibitions. Thompson shows how her miserable need to abase herself before Leo, her confessional wretchedness, evaporates as her bossy, conceited teacherly mannerisms rise to the surface. She becomes more confident and the unlovely reactionary side to her comes to the fore, allowing her id free rein – even declaring that what the younger generation needs is a good war to burn off all that excess energy.

Of course, the thought experiment can’t be avoided: what if this was a middle-aged man with a younger female sex worker? What if it was Bill Nighy on screen with a not-as-famous female star? It naturally wouldn’t be the same; the tone would shift away from comedy, but that is because the power relations of gender affect the bought-sex experience, as they affect every other kind of experience. Perhaps Good Luck to You, Leo Grande does not aspire to a piercingly profound analysis of sex and the human condition. It is, however, an amusing, compassionate and humane drama acted and directed with terrific panache.

  • Good Luck to You, Leo Grande screened at the Sundance film festival and is released on 17 June in cinemas.