“Pleasure is a wonderful thing. It’s something we should all have,” former religious teacher Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) tells a former student at the end of Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Mainstream film often touts love, and sometimes Dionysiac excess. But a quieter brief for adult satisfaction is rarer. That makes Leo Grande a refreshing change, even if it remains solidly conventional in other respects.
The movie mostly takes place in a single hotel room. Nancy has had an unadventurous life with little romance or sexual pleasure. She has never had an orgasm, and has never given nor received oral sex. Two years after her husband dies, she decides to hire a sex worker to try to belatedly experience some of what she missed. Enter the breathtakingly beautiful Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack).
Thompson and McCormack are both very talented, polished actors, and they bring life to a charming, if predictable, script by Kay Brand. Nancy is frustratingly, and even infuriatingly, nervous and reticent at first. Thompson is a small, furious storm of tics, nervous glances, frightened flinches, and sad need.
For his part, Leo’s smooth façade occasionally chips but doesn’t shatter as he puts in the substantial amount of emotional labor necessary to get her over Nancy’s self-disgust, fear, and desperation. Nancy at one point praises his miraculous tongue, and while she’s not referring to his voice, the fact is that his Irish lilt is a steady, lyrical balm. One of the joys of the film is just listening to him talk, gently seducing the viewer just as he gently seduces Nancy (for pay, in both cases.)
The highlight of that seduction is arguably a dance scene about halfway through. Nancy manages, briefly and tentatively, to let go of herself, which also means Thompson letting more of herself peek through. It’s a nice, perhaps unintentional irony that Nancy finding a new, truer Nancy means she’s accessing an inner sophisticated, graceful Emma Thompson.
Eventually Nancy wants more intimacy, violates boundaries, and pushes Leo to reveal more than he wants to, or should have to. Though this isn’t quite a romance, it follows the classic romance arc: meet-cute, growing intimacy, complication, and seemingly irreparable rupture, reconciliation, happily ever after (of a sort.)
That strict, pat narrative arc keeps the film from delving too deeply. The relationship can be messy but not too messy; every unexpected revelation is slotted into its expected place—and can’t be too unexpected. The film is supposed to bare all, but the “all” is carefully curated. Hyde’s movie doesn’t have the appreciation or the genius for the chaos of other quirky sort-of-rom-coms like Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet or Steven Shainberg’s Secretary.
What Leo Grande does have, though, is an admirable set of political commitments. Sex work is heavily stigmatized, and sex workers in film are often portrayed in stereotypical or invidious ways. They need to be saved (Pretty Woman). Or they careen towards inevitable hedonistic downfall (Hustlers). Or they are killed off for a laugh (Rough Night).
Leo Grande is careful to avoid all of those tropes. Nancy has a lot of misconceptions about sex work, as she does about sex. She assumes Leo must hate his work, that he must be on drugs or in trouble, or that his anonymity is a sign of shame. But in several discussions over the course of the film, Leo disabuses her. Sex work is a job that he (at least) enjoys, and he would enjoy it even more if it weren’t criminalized and stigmatized.
Removing the shame from sex work, the film argues, is a vital part of removing the shame from sex and from pleasure. The two protagonists, together, talk about and fantasize about a world in which shame is banished, and people like Nancy can seek out people like Leo openly, without fear. Everyone should be able to claim their desires and their pleasures and their bodies. Those who help them do that deserve respect, not hate and fear.
And yet, in the US we’re in a time when desires, pleasures, and sexual fulfillment are being increasingly stigmatized and criminalized. Abortion rights and LGBT rights are under assault. Trans people are being criminalized in numerous states. Legislation targeting sex workers over the last few years has become much harsher, forcing providers off the internet and back onto the streets where they face more violence.
Leo Grande is a quiet film that makes a case for private pleasure in conventional terms. That shouldn’t be revolutionary. But right now, it is.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande streams on HULU, starting June 17.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Searchlight Films.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.