I think most would agree that Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is not a particularly ambitious film, owing to the few characters, settings and moments of tension that make up its 97-minute runtime. But that is not to say the film has nothing to offer.
Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, this comedic character-study begins with a retired Religious Education teacher (Emma Thompson) meeting a male sex worker (Daryl McCormack), whom she hired personally in an attempt to satisfy the needs that her conventional life had deprived her of. The narrative unfolds with every meeting, as new details surrounding the characters’ personal lives come to light.
Both characters go by aliases, but for arguably different reasons. The RE teacher, who goes by Nancy Stokes, desires to experience sex outside the confines of religious propriety, all the while knowing that doing so would make her a hypocrite. She mentions how her younger self would disprove of what she is doing, her eagerness to rush through the various sex acts humorously pointing to her sense of unease as she inhabits this new identity. Leo Grande, the identity chosen by the male sex worker, provides the opposite effect for him. He explains that it his work name, the only name he wishes his clients to know him by. But during a fallout with Nancy, where Leo finally divulges about his relationship with his mother, it becomes apparent that “Leo Grande” is not attached to any shame, but is rather the identity Leo chooses to live by. This distinction is just one of the ways Good Luck to You, Leo Grande effectively explores the dichotomy between stuffy correctness and living life free of self-criticism.
Thompson manages to sell the idea that we are watching a seasoned conformist embrace, albeit with difficulty, the freedoms that come with “letting loose.” The exchanges between Nancy and Leo are marked by mutual formality, but where they differ is on their attitudes towards sexual terminology. Nancy skirts precariously around verbalising terms deemed to be dirty or sinful, whereas Leo finishes her sentences for her with a cool nonchalance. Nancy’s awkwardness, which is no less apparent in her frequent stammering and haphazard responses, may not be enough to facilitate actual laughter, but I did find myself smiling more often than not throughout the ordeal.
As much as I appreciate Thompson as an actor, McCormack’s performance just about holds the narrative from sinking under its plodding premise. Leo is not a stereotypical prostitute; he conducts himself with suave and a gentlemanly presence. While the character is subjected to the female gaze, he is never completely objectified, and audiences indifferent to the camera’s focus would find his personality just as intriguing. He is soft-spoken, careful not to mince his words, and even insightful when we least expect it.
Leo’s characterisation demonstrates an expression of support for real life sex workers, and the dialogue he has with Nancy enables the creators to communicate ideas directly to the audience. One of these is the notion that sex work should be recognised as a form of public service.
Besides being a champion for sex workers, Leo Grande also has a remarkable intelligence (including of the emotional kind), for someone working in an industry that is stereotypically known to attract the not-very-bright. So much so, that one should be forgiven for thinking that he has all the answers.
The film’s emphasis on character is certainly something to be admired, but it also points to where it faulters. Its heavy reliance on dialogue leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the film markets itself as a comedy. While at first it hits all the right notes, the banter between the two characters quickly loses its appeal, and the dreary apartment setting soon becomes suffocating. Is it so hard to spice-up the mise-en-scene?
Although some might protest this comparison, I frequently found myself thinking about Leslie Greif’s 2006 film, Funny Money. Here is a film that also lacks the typical number of settings for a feature length film. But it works. People zig-zagging this way and that, characters running into others in compromising situations…I have no doubt that had Good Luck to you Leo Grande made better use of its setting, the film’s comedic angle would have a lot more to show for.
Good Luck to you Leo Grande contains strong performances and a noble call to liberalise discussions of sex, sexuality and those who work in the sex industry. For a film that centres on a retired teacher hiring a sex worker, there is just enough wit, drama and feeling to justify its own existence.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan.