It became a rock legend. The story from the 60s that involved Mick Jagger, his then girlfriend Marianne Faithfull and a Mars bar. The uptight Nancy (Emma Thompson) would remember it, which might account for her alarm when she sees the young man she’s booked for the next two hours tucking into one. Its significance would go right over his head, but it’s just one instance of the perfectly judged little gags quietly lurking in the script of Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, a film about sex and sex workers, self-image and the inevitability of aging.
In an anonymous hotel room, former RE teacher Nancy meets the Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) of the title. He’s a means to an end. The death of her husband has spurred her into making some changes and, after years of what is best described as perfunctory sex, she’s in search of pleasure – the most climactic experience of all, in fact. But, over their series of meetings, they discover an unexpected connection, learning more about the reality of each other and, most importantly, coming to a deeper understanding of their individual selves.
Nancy approaches her mission with all the briskness of her profession, her default setting when crippling nerves threaten to take over, but there’s no disguising this is a woman who’s grown used to a lack of physical affection and, much as she longs for it, it petrifies her. Leo is equally business-like, describing himself with disarming honesty as a sex worker, but his manner is gentle, indulgent and, at times, one step removed from that of a therapist. Katy Brand’s screenplay for this charming two hander delicately balances humour – from laugh out loud moments to those fleeting one liners (wait until you find out Nancy’s real name!) – with genuine compassion for the two people on screen, Nancy especially.
Its honesty is especially endearing. Alongside Leo’s attitude to his job, neither the film nor Thompson herself shies away from the fact that she’s an older woman. The lines around her eyes and mouth are on full view, while later we’re allowed to share her assessment of her physical self in a moment that’s neither critical nor demeaning. Instead, you applaud both the character and the actor for taking what is literally a no filter approach in an age when we’ve come to expect nothing less than physical perfection, especially in front of the camera. It’s the film’s silent culmination, the moment when Nancy knows she’s ticked off everything on her list, and perhaps one of the most moving scenes in Thompson’s career.
This is easily one of her best performances per se. Human, understandable, full of contradictions but ultimately sympathetic, her Nancy is a fully rounded person with a backstory that’s essentially created the person on the screen. The all-important chemistry between Thompson and McCormack is most definitely there and, even if his character isn’t quite as satisfying, the film cradles us with an irresistible balance of truth and wryly observed compassion. It’s one of the best at this year’s Sundance and deserves all the luck in the world.
Comedy, Drama | Cert: tbc | Sundance Film Festival 2022 | Dir. Sophie Hyde | Emma Thompson, Darryl McCormack.