Ask any random person on the street for their favourite Emma Thompson performance and chances are you'll get the same answer: Love Actually. In particular, that scene. You know, the one where Karen (Thompson) discovers that her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman), has given a necklace to another woman. We watch as she silently sobs to the heartbreaking sounds of Joni Mitchell. It resonates so deeply for so many because of its gut-wrenching portrayal of the pain of being betrayed by the person you love and, in turn, betraying yourself out of fear of the unknown.
In 2022, Thompson is once again touching on these themes. This time she lights up the screen as retired RE teacher Nancy Stokes in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. Nancy is recently widowed and we come to learn that she was unhappy in her relationship, particularly her sex life: she's never had an orgasm, with her husband failing to make room for honest communication over the course of their 30-plus year marriage. A desire to broaden her limited experience with intimacy leads Nancy to hire a young sex worker in the hope of finally gaining agency over her sexuality.
Helping her step into this new territory is 28-year-old Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a young, good-looking sex worker with a calm, confident attitude, lilting Irish accent and disarming sense of humour. The pair meet in a lifeless hotel room where Nancy's good intentions turn to panic as she instantly becomes stressed, convinced that Leo is repulsed by her. Her negative self-talk manifests in a series of awkward questions about Leo's work, with Nancy concerned that he is a victim of trafficking or had a distressing upbringing.
Thankfully, Leo is well versed in making people feel at ease and reminds Nancy that his job is a choice, one that he enjoys and enters into willingly. Despite his reassurances, their conversation jumps back and forth between Nancy wanting to dive in headfirst and cancel the whole thing. At every stage of her deliberation, Leo makes it clear that consent is key, inviting her to speak about her feelings at every interval. Whether it's a kiss on the cheek or the removal of a shirt, each exchange is both stilted and sensual, peppered with rambling tangents about families, jobs and Mars bars.
Eventually the pair get under the covers and Nancy gains the confidence to explain the real reasons behind her hesitation. She details her experiences of being made to feel invisible by the only sexual partner she’s ever had and how her own pleasure has taken a back seat throughout her entire life. It’s a beautifully sad scene which showcases Thompson’s talent for capturing a quiet vulnerability.
The intimacy between Thompson and McCormack is a triumph. According to screenwriter Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde, the pair achieved this by attending intimacy workshops and consulting with IRL sex workers before filming in a push to present a more authentic view of the dynamic between sex workers and their clients. There is room for discussion, of course, in the generational gap between the characters but the film’s gender flip allows space for honest conversations about prejudice, safeguarding and setting personal boundaries.
Yet as a character, Nancy retains outdated ideas about sex and the sex work industry, which eventually harms her dynamic with Leo. Her obsession with establishing a 'real' connection with Leo outside of their sessions means that the film loses its footing slightly towards its climax as it attempts to flesh out unnecessary details in the characters' backstories without giving them enough airtime.
In its best moments, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is a testament to the fact that sexual satisfaction is a key step towards self-fulfilment. The film focuses on menopausal women finally being given a space to feel sexually desired on screen but its themes stretch far beyond the subject of ageing. On the surface, Nancy’s feelings about herself and about sex may appear to be about her changing body but at their core her issues relate to the female experience and the conflicting statements about want and desire that we're drip-fed from a young age.
This idea is beautifully portrayed through the film’s cinematography. Beginning with cutaway bedroom shots of light touches and kisses, everything is eventually laid bare, with intimate acts showed as the joyful, positive, fun moments they can be. The slow unravelling of intimate shots mirrors how we reveal ourselves in relationships. Nancy’s body begins as a shameful place from which she feels entirely disconnected, eventually becoming a playground of personal pleasure.
We can link Nancy's experience to the limitations that society imposes on women but, really, the film's true message is about advocating for oneself. It reminds us that we can decide to choose ourselves at any point, whenever we gain the courage to do so. It hammers home the very simple idea that we are the only people who have the power to make a change in our lives and that seeking happiness isn't a selfish act. While you might need the help of somebody else to get to that place, freedom is a decision that ultimately comes from within.
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is in Australian cinemas from August 18