In the opening sequence of Sophie Hyde’s riveting “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” a suave young man (Daryl McCormack) steps out of an ice cream parlor, catches a mint candy in his mouth, and swings around a street pole like a hipster Gene Kelly. The Irishman is confidently cool — and not quite himself. He’s getting into character as Leo Grande, a charming sex worker who sells the Leo Grande Fantasy: a “service,” he calls it, where he gives paying customers exactly what they need, be it physical release, conversation or, for one client, dressing like a cat. But Katy Brand’s screenplay is only focused on Leo’s interactions with one customer: Nancy (Emma Thompson), a widowed religious studies teacher pacing a blandly attractive hotel room, panicked that she’s made a mistake. What’s her fantasy, Leo asks. Nancy chokes on her own desires. “To have sex? Tonight? With you? Do you mind?”
The set-up of this intimate talkie sounds like middle-aged wish fulfillment — “How Teach Got Her Groove Back” — with Nancy checking off her handwritten list of erotic firsts courtesy of a kind and generous twenty-something she calls a “sexual saint.” (She even pinches Leo’s arm to prove he’s real.) But Hyde’s insight is that Leo isn’t real. He’s a performance, a put-on, an actor of sorts conscientiously projecting sensitivity and patience while nervous Nancy peppers him with questions. Does he feel demeaned? Does he use Viagra? Is he a trafficked orphan? What’s the oldest woman he’s had sex with? Why is he doing this? What does his mother think? The first three answers are no, no and no. The others, Leo parries with deflections, candor or lies. Like a therapist, he tries to figure out what response Nancy needs to hear. And he’s not always correct. When he suggests roleplaying sexy teacher and naughty student, Nancy gags.
Hyde’s film is a psychological conversation piece titillated by the potential of sex. (There isn’t much onscreen until it ends with a graphic montage that feels included to prove Thompson’s faith in the project.) Over Nancy and Leo’s sessions together, they fall into a pattern: He struggles to set the mood, and she smashes it. But while Thompson’s character does most of the talking, in the moments she excuses herself to hide in the bathroom, Bryan Mason’s camera prefers to stay with him. Leo lets his smile go slack. He studies himself in the mirror. And then when his client reemerges, he snaps back into character. Leo Grande is fake. But the work it takes to be Leo Grande is genuine.
Thompson’s neurotic is alternately sympathetic and aggravating. Her Nancy tips over into comedy — there’s a negligee gag that’s played for an easy laugh — and the score can get overly playful, as though it, too, is anxious to put the audience at ease. Yet, Nancy’s lust is never the joke. Thompson commits to revealing the full woman, quite literally. While the film finds it tragic that Nancy is so uncomfortable in her own skin, she’s also condescending to waiters, priggish about her female students’ mini-skirts, and ashamed of her own adult children — one for having too much fun, the other for not having enough. She’s unsatisfied by her entire life, and she’s in part to blame. And despite her snobbery, she’s also not rich enough to pay for Leo indefinitely. That adds to the tension when she presents him with a list of five positions she claims she’s eager to try and instructs him to get on with it, even though her body language says otherwise.
McCormack is fantastic in a role so subtle it could appear flatlined and phony if people aren’t playing attention. He’s forced to keep his voice as steady as a horse tamer; the energy flows through his eyes. His Leo stares at Nancy, absorbs her, and through his rapt attention silently tries to convince her that to him, in this moment, she’s the only woman in the world. Steve Fanagan’s sound design casts a similar spell. Once Leo enters the hotel, the film never leaves. We become hyper-aware of the sound of socks on carpet and hands rustling over shirt collars and hair. Leo and Nancy’s hotel room begins to feel like sacred ground. (Composer Stephen Rennicks isn’t above adding music that harkens to a religious choir). “There are nuns out there with more sexual experience than me,” Nancy quips. Yes, but here, pleasure is both sacred and practical, a wobbly balance that seduces the audience, too.