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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
In "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande," Emma Thompson plays a widow yearning to fulfill a desire that somehow eluded her her entire life - an orgasm. She sets about achieving her goal the only way she can imagine how - by hiring a much younger, highly attractive sex worker for a couple of hours. Their time spent together turns out to be much more than transactional, however, and to be about far more than just sex. It's a quiet movie about intimacy, sex positivity and generational divides. And Thompson and her co-star Daryl McCormack give captivating performances. I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Joining us today is NPR arts correspondent Mandalit del Barco. Hi, Mandalit. Welcome.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Thank you. Hi.
HARRIS: Also joining us is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury. Welcome back, Bedatri. It's great to have you.
BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Great to be back, as always.
HARRIS: So in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, Emma Thompson plays Nancy Stokes, who's a retired schoolteacher whose husband of three decades has died just a couple of years earlier. Nancy's marriage was a rather unsatisfying one. In all that time, she never once had an orgasm. And to top it all off, he was the only person she's ever slept with. It also feels important to note that she's never been able to achieve an orgasm on her own. So lots of things at stake here - very high stakes. Enter Leo Grande, a beautiful, charming 20-something sex worker who's played by Daryl McCormack. Nancy hires him, and the pair meet for a series of encounters in the same hotel room over the course of several weeks.
Now, the two couldn't be more different. She's this uptight micromanager who projects her own shame and insecurities about sex and intimacy on Leo. And he's this calm and attentive professional with high emotional intelligence and pride in his ability to satisfy his clients' fantasies. Almost all of the film takes place in that hotel room, but the highs, lows and the in-betweens of their conversations reach far beyond their confined space. The movie was written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, and it's streaming on Hulu starting tomorrow.
Bedatri, let's start with you. What were your impressions - first impressions on "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande?"
CHOUDHURY: It's a weird adjective to use for a film that's about sex and everything, but I found it really endearing. It's very human. It could have been raunchy, and I would have loved watching that film, too. So, you know, if the filmmakers are listening, please make that film. But also, on an aside, you know, I went to a girls school growing up. And, you know, the things that we see that the character of Nancy - she's a retired schoolteacher in the film, and the thoughts that she has, the things that she has told her former students about desire being bad or even, like, the body policing and, like, the length of skirts, blah, blah, blah - those are things I've heard growing up in school, over and over again. So to see this film and to - you know, not giving much of the plot away - but to see her reckoning with her past was really, really important. I didn't know I needed it, but apparently I did. It was very important to me and my healing.
HARRIS: Yeah, I can only imagine. I never went to a school like that - an all-girls school or the type of environment where the teachers were constantly - I mean, obviously, we had sex ed, but, like, it wasn't quite the level of, like, a religious school upbringing. But I can imagine what it could be like to watch a character who you remember being that teacher sort of being challenged on all of those - being like, yes, it's good to see you actually, like, dealing with this and confronting this and realizing...
HARRIS: ...Maybe you had it wrong or you - you know, you need to think about this in a different way.
Mandalit, I know that you saw this at Sundance, like myself, earlier this year. That's where it premiered.
DEL BARCO: Yeah.
HARRIS: And I remember you enjoying it, but tell us more. What were your thoughts on this?
DEL BARCO: It was so much fun. And I rewatched it again just so we could talk about it, and I had a great time watching this. And I just have to say, without being too TMI, but I can really relate to being that - like, the slightly older woman with a younger guy. And it was so refreshing to see that in a film. I mean, we don't - we see a lot of men with younger women - you know? - but we rarely see this generational thing. And what was very fun is to see Emma Thompson being this kind of, like, uptight, repressed woman who - it's not just about the orgasm, it's more about she just has not enjoyed pleasures of the flesh, let's put it that way. She just hasn't allowed herself to do that. And then - and to see this very hunky sex worker - I mean, he's - he looked - he reminded me of the guy in "Bridgerton," Season 1, you know?
HARRIS: Oh, yes. Yes.
DEL BARCO: I was - just very sexy and confident and cool and, you know, he's very warm and fun and funny. And both of them are really funny. In fact, you know, Nancy, the character Emma Thompson plays, she - she's always, like, mindful of how much she's paying him and how much this is costing her, right? But she's also such a planner. Like, she - I can imagine her life is just very planned out. And so she - and there's a scene - I hope we can play this tape from the scene - where she has a list of what she wants to do with him.
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EMMA THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) No. 1 - I perform oral sex on you. No. 2 - you perform oral sex on me. No. 3 - we do a 69, if that's what it's still called. I don't know. Four - me on top. Five - doggystyle.
DARYL MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) That all sounds very achievable.
THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) Oh, does it? Oh, good.
HARRIS: I'm glad you picked that, because I was almost going to pick that clip to bring.
DEL BARCO: Her performance is great, I thought. I just totally bought it, you know? But, you know, she's, like, so self-conscious in that she's always asking him questions. And I have another piece of tape to play. This is one of the questions she asks him.
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THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) What's the oldest person you've ever done it with?
MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) Eighty-two.
THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) Eighty-two?
MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) Yeah.
THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) Eighty-two?
MCCORMACK: (As Leo Grande) Nancy.
THOMPSON: (As Nancy Stokes) OK, I'm feeling a bit better now.
DEL BARCO: So he's always, like, reassuring her - you know? - which is really cool, I thought.
HARRIS: Yeah, there's this kind of amazing sort of push and pull that is constantly happening. And the pushing and pulling - to be clear, he is maybe, like, the most perfect kind of partner in every way. Like, he is - the push is not forceful. There's always consent going on.
DEL BARCO: Right.
HARRIS: He's very in tune with, like, anytime the mood is shifting. He's always asking, like, is it OK if I touch you?
DEL BARCO: Right.
HARRIS: What do you want to do? What are your desires? He's asking her all of these questions, and this is happening throughout their entire process. Like, I think about all of the reckoning that we've had or the - we've said we've had a reckoning with, like, in the wake of #MeToo and these sorts of things and how a lot of people would push back on the idea of consent and say, like, that's not sexy. This is not - like, it ruins the mood. What about being, like, improvisational, or what about just spur of the moment? And I think this really is, like, a sort of blueprint for how it can be both sexy and spur of the moment, but also every step of the way, there are plans. There are...
DEL BARCO: Right.
HARRIS: ...In part because, like you said, Mandalit, she's a planner, and that is her thing. And so I really liked being able to see that dynamic and have it play out that way. Now, this is a film, as I've already mentioned, that mostly takes place in this hotel room. It's bookended a little bit by the outside world, but it's mostly in these rooms. And I'm curious to hear how that worked for you.
CHOUDHURY: Before answering that, I'd like to go back to what you said, Aisha. I watched it at Sundance as well, and a friend of mine in her mid-30s as well - she's like, forget the body. The real fantasy is this man doing all this emotional labor.
DEL BARCO: Right.
CHOUDHURY: And that has stayed with me. And that has stayed with me. Yeah. You know, I think the hotel room worked for me because, you know, as we've seen - and I'm so glad you bring up plays - is we've seen in, like, boxed-up plays is that it can feel claustrophobic, which it for me didn't. Even within the enclosed space of the hotel room, it didn't. It's literally - like, on the contrary, it's two people opening up their worlds, as it were.
DEL BARCO: Yeah. In this sense, the film - it is a play pretty much. But you can concentrate on the performances, and you can concentrate on their stories, and you can concentrate exactly on that, that intimacy that we were talking about and the connections between the two. There's not, like, a lot of - there's no special effects. I mean, why do movies have to have a bunch of special effects or scenery or, you know, incredible camerawork, although there are some really interesting camerawork in this, too?
DEL BARCO: It's not devoid of cinematography or a cinematic kind of experience either, but I think it's really cool to just kind of be in there. It's very intimate, just like the story is, you know?
HARRIS: When I see a film that is either based on a play or is sort of filmed almost like it could be a play or you can sort of picture it, I wonder, OK, how does this transcend that and become something different? And I agree with you. I think that for me, what I loved are the moments where, you know, a lot of it is you see them both in the frame or you see one of them in the frame. But then there are moments when they come together, and the camera kind of moves in closely, often when they're at their most physically intimate, if not their most emotionally intimate.
DEL BARCO: I think there was a handheld camera at some points, too.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
DEL BARCO: When they're dancing and...
HARRIS: Yeah, there's a beautiful dance scene where they're talking, and I found it really beautiful. And there's a moment where she asks him to take off his shirt, and then she walks over, and she caresses him very gently. And the camera is also very close in there. And so those moments to me really bring out sort of the - this is what makes it - I sound like, you know, Martin Scorsese but, like, this is cinema - but, like...
HARRIS: But it really felt like...
DEL BARCO: Right.
HARRIS: You know, it felt like it transcended being just, like, what could have been, like, a two-hander on a stage.
DEL BARCO: Also the close-ups - you see their faces. You see the pleasure on their faces, on each of them, right? And...
DEL BARCO: And I think that you can really tell this was directed by a woman as well.
CHOUDHURY: And also the perfect song for that sequence - they have an Alabama Shakes song. And like Aisha, I was like, this is cinema.
CHOUDHURY: And that's...
DEL BARCO: Right.
HARRIS: Well, there's this genre of women talking about their marriages and being very unhappy in them and about them and detailing all the ways they're unhappy, and yet still arguing that, like, it's worth sticking it out and worth - you know, worth staying with that person for years and being miserable. So I'm curious as to what you all think about, you know, how this movie sort of sits in that sort of same space, because obviously the Nancy character - she doesn't talk too much about her husband, but she did seem unhappy. And now she's in this space where she is learning how to liberate herself and find herself after he's gone.
CHOUDHURY: There are so many times where, like, we are conditioned to think that the end of life for the husband is also end of life for the wife.
CHOUDHURY: And it's interesting how at this point she's just like, you know what? These are the five things - or the four - this is a list of four things I've never done before, and I have to do this. And you see the urgency in her as well. So I find that very interesting, that - I mean, of course, as a husband, there's the past. But there is, like, this idea of wanting to gain control over the future, a control that she didn't have. And it's not a - you know, a whole monologue. But then she goes into her relationship with motherhood as well.
CHOUDHURY: And why I found it very real - because she doesn't say, I wish I didn't have kids, or, like, they stopped my progress, blah, blah, blah. But she also says there are so many things I could have done if I did not have kids. I definitely see my mother saying, you know, things like that. Like, I don't regret it. But at the same time, there's so many things I could have done. And it's very subtle, these things in the film. It's not a, oh, here's a personal essay on why I didn't leave my husband, you know, or like, oh, divorces are so easy these days. You know, it's not like that, but it's very subtle. And I mean, I've never been married, never been divorced, so I don't think I could, like, see myself in her. But, like, I do think that the way it was written - and again, perhaps because it was written by a woman - it just seemed like something, quote-unquote, "real women" would say.
DEL BARCO: And I think this was written with Emma Thompson in mind, for her to deliver those lines. And, you know, I think she really draws a really great character sketch of her husband, her son and her daughter with just a very few words. Like, basically she's like, my husband was like, wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. And that's kind of, like, all you need to know about how their sex life was, you know what I mean? Like, she just was disappointed and kind of been disappointed in her life and her kids. And she just kind of just had this, like, blah existence until now. And so this is her attempt to try and change things up. And I remember reading Emma Thompson say that the character, Nancy, was this ordinary woman who does an extraordinary thing. I mean, extraordinary for her, right? It's very...
DEL BARCO: ...Radical for her, like, this whole journey that she is taking upon herself after realizing that she's missed out all these years on great sex and great intimacy in the past, you know?
HARRIS: Yeah. What do you all think about sort of the sex positivity theme that's throughout this film, especially as it's - as we're seeing it through Leo? Because he is - again, he's kind of this almost perfect guy, and I almost wonder if he's too perfect in some ways. Like, he definitely has - later on in the film, we get a little bit more into his backstory, but in terms of how he holds himself and carries himself, he's pretty perfect. What do you think of how this feels, especially in conversation with all of these other things we're talking about when it comes to sex positivity, sex workers and how we view them? I think obviously the tide has shifted in how a lot of us think of this. Leo very much thinks of this as both a job but also a job he loves to do. So, yeah, I'm curious what you - how you feel about it.
CHOUDHURY: So many films, so many books have, you know, shown us characters who are prostitutes, sex workers who've always been, like, I'd rather be doing something else. This is something I'm doing out of some kind of compulsion or blah, blah, blah. And here we see this person, very attractive, and then he says, no, actually, I like doing my job, you know? I like seeing pleasure on people's faces. I like being desired. I don't think we've seen too much of that. But I do sex work because I want to do sex work and not because I have mouths to feed, blah, blah, blah, you know? We've all seen those films.
DEL BARCO: There's no shame in it.
HARRIS: No shame. We really do just get to see slowly over time over these, like, several meetings, like, this is a person learning how to unlearn all of the biases and assumptions that they lived with in their mid-60s. And I think that's a really powerful thing to see. And I'm very much just naturally a cynic about certain things. But I do think having a movie like this show, like, there are people who can change no matter what stage in life they're at, I think that's something that I just love seeing in this film.
DEL BARCO: Well - and I also hope that people can appreciate how difficult it must have been, how challenging, I'd say, to do nude scenes for a woman in her 60s to stand in front of a mirror and regard herself, look at herself and hopefully come to appreciate herself, her body, you know. Because we don't see that in movies. We never see 60-something-year-old woman's body in a movie, like, that's not being made fun of or something like that. So we see her looking at herself. We also see him looking at himself. So it's very, like, even-handed. And I understand that the director of this film rehearsed these scenes nude with the two actors, so they were all trying to get comfortable with each other. That's not the usual rehearsal process, I would imagine.
HARRIS: No, but I think - I'd never thought of that. But, like, I can totally see with the right mix of people and the right environment, if the person who's directing this is also just as vulnerable, even though they're not on camera, like, they're also still in the room. So I can see that definitely having an effect on the chemistry.
DEL BARCO: I just really love that this film is about a middle-aged woman and her desires because we don't see that in the movies.
HARRIS: Yeah. There's a nod to "The Graduate" that I chuckled at.
DEL BARCO: Oh, yeah.
CHOUDHURY: Yes. Yes.
HARRIS: That I chuckled that a little bit, but, like - and I think that nod in a way is both, like, you know, ha ha, but it's also this is a different era, this is a different time. And this is from the perspective of the older woman and not from the younger man. I mean, this is a pretty even two-hander, but it's definitely clearly more so about the Emma Thompson character because she has the needs that he is trying to fulfill. So...
DEL BARCO: Right. And she's a very different character than you see in "Sense And Sensibility" or "Howards End." I mean, this is...
CHOUDHURY: Oh, yes.
DEL BARCO: This is - she's in her element here as a woman playing her age, you know?
DEL BARCO: For a change.
HARRIS: Well, I am always down to watch Emma Thompson. And also now I'm, like - want to look out for Daryl McCormack and see what else he's doing because he was also fantastic in this.
DEL BARCO: He was amazing.
DEL BARCO: Maybe he'll be in the next "Bridgerton" or maybe something else - "James Bond." I don't know.
DEL BARCO: So cool.
CHOUDHURY: This film is so much about double lives. And of course, like you said, Aisha, it is focused on Emma Thompson's double life. But also at the end of the day, with sex work and, like, I can be whoever you want me to be, that's also a lot of double living and, you know, personality building and facade. And he's such a great actor, like, you know. And I'm saying this in the tone, like he has such a good body, but he's also a great actor, you know?
DEL BARCO: Body and body of work.
CHOUDHURY: Exactly. So, you know, I think those transitions in him, you would have to be a very good actor. And it's very clear when he's putting something on to be Leo Grande and when he's not, when he's just the person he is without that name. Those little subtle transitions in him are so well acted out. So I will be on the lookout as well.
CHOUDHURY: For more reasons than one.
HARRIS: Hear, hear (laughter). Well, we want to know what you all think about "Good Luck To You, Leo Grande." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Mandalit del Barco, Bedatri D. Choudhury, thanks to you both for being here. It was an absolute pleasure.
DEL BARCO: Thank you.
CHOUDHURY: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
HARRIS: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Anna Isaacs and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides the music you're probably bobbing your head to right now. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about "Lightyear."
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