Sundance 2022: 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande' is a Thought-provoking Take on Sex Work
Updated: Mar 7, 2022
When we first meet Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), she’s getting settled into a hotel room, wringing her hands and pacing about. Nancy is anxiously preparing for her first meeting with a sex worker, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack). Director Sophie Hyde has made sure to be careful and precise in her establishment of Nancy’s character. While introducing the two lead characters, the cinematography remains somewhat sterile and objective, allowing the audience to absorb their beings without too much influence from Hyde herself. From the get-go, we can infer, based on the clothing and accessories of the lead characters, what their lives and personalities are made up of. Leo is well-dressed and casually dapper, leaning into the fantasy he creates for his customers. Nancy, on the other hand, wears a long skirt and clothing to cover up her body, already letting the viewer in on her insecurities about her aging body. Hyde doesn’t waste the limited runtime of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande on expository dialogue, and instead allows her clearly skilled costuming department to do what most screenplays cannot: create a fleshed-out universe through clothing.
Daryl McCormack, a young actor relatively new to the scene, not only holds his own alongside the legendary Emma Thompson, but also manages to distinguish himself as a promising actor to keep an eye out for. Just like “Leo” has successfully created a nearly impenetrable character to please his clients, McCormack conjures up a sexy, enthralling performance. It’s easy to find oneself hanging onto every word he says. He saunters across every frame, languid and relaxed, creating a beautiful canvas for Emma Thompson’s anxious Nancy Stokes.
As Nancy’s character unfolds, we learn just how deeply rooted her identity is in her status as an ex-teacher. More prominent in her identity though is her anxieties about her own sexuality and her place as an aging woman in the ever-changing present. It’s rare that women onscreen (let alone aging women) are given the opportunity to not only discuss their sexual experiences but also grieve for their lack thereof. Leo Grande is quietly revelatory for many things, one of which is its empathy for the pain that often comes with expressing (or not expressing) one’s sexuality as a woman.
As the story progresses and Nancy and Leo grow more comfortable with one another, the cinematography becomes increasingly intimate, allowing for a more idyllic interpretation of the unfolding events. There are close-ups of hands touching and caressing, and the emphasis on closeness increases as the film carries onward. Despite the intimacy communicated so strikingly via cinematography, director Sophie Hydes does a marvelous job of reminding the viewer that this isn’t actual romance. It’s a job.
Much of the runtime of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is dedicated to discussions of sex work and the eponymous Leo’s feelings about the realities of his job. The film takes not only a respectful approach, but a curious one. How does Leo feel about his job? What excites him about his lifestyle and what disturbs him? These are all questions posed to the viewer and Nancy alike. Just like the film’s revelatory approach to sexuality for women, the Leo Grande is equally revelatory in its exploration of the complexities of sex work.
A particularly touching scene occurs toward the end of the film. After the trials and tribulations of Nancy and Leo growing together and apart, Nancy takes a moment for herself. For once, she allows herself to relax, and happens to do so while completely naked in front of a mirror. She gazes softly at herself, tenderly touching and examining different parts of her body; specifically parts that she’s hated for her whole life.
As one of the final moments of the film, the scene is a beautiful culmination of many of the themes of the film. Unlearning sexual repression and the pains that come with it is a long process, but one that must start with self-acceptance. While watching herself move in the mirror, Nancy experiences some of her first moments of self-love. In yet another revelatory moment, an aging woman is seen accepting her body for what it is.
No matter one’s preconceived notions about sex work, there is something new to ponder for every viewer in Leo Grande, thanks to Hyde’s detailed direction, Katy Brand’s sharp screenplay, and two startlingly empathetic performances by Thompson and McCormack. It has just been acquired by Hulu and will be streaming sometime this year.