A Review of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.
It’s real damn hard being a person. For everyone. Everywhere. At least, sometimes. It’s hard in its own way for everyone, and it can be unfathomably harder for some than others, but it’s always, at a minimum, hard. Even that person you may already be thinking of, who has seemingly gotten all the things they’ve ever wanted, without pain or hardship, even they have to contend with everything they hold dear being temporary; even they have to contend with, however much they may enjoy the life they have, the awareness of all the lives they didn’t get to lead, all the opportunities they’ve had to pass up, and that the idea that eventually, all things must pass. The challenge to talking about these unpleasant truths, to telling stories about the entropy of life, is to find a way to treat those things seriously and to also convey how joyful life can still be.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is the story of an older woman that we know for most of the movie as Nancy (Emma Thompson), a name she has assumed because she has hired a male sex worker, Leo (Daryl McCormack), who is also working under an assumed name. Nancy has come to realize, since the death of her husband, how impoverished their sex life had been, and she’s looking to rectify that while she still has time. This desire for adventurous sex is sincere and serves as the engine of the story, but the film is also quite overtly about a kind of general dissatisfaction with one’s life that primarily comes just from being older, And not even older in the sense we usually mean. Nancy, assuming she’s about the same age as the actress portraying her, is in her early 60s, in good health, with seemingly full use of her mind and body. The conflict for her isn’t things she wants to do that her body won’t let her do anymore, but rather the things she wishes she could do and experience now, if only she had made different choices in her life to date. It is a story about connection and need and aging and second chances and finality, told over a series of intimate encounters in a hotel room between Nancy and Leo
Leo is a fascinating character in the story, given how integral he is to Nancy’s character arc, yet also being largely inaccessible to the audience. We are given the impression of a man who greatly enjoys the work he does, trying to find ways to connect with people in order to give them the fantasies that they’ve paid for. But, because that is his job, and we can plainly see that he is quite good at it, almost everything we see of Leo is being mediated through a performance he is being paid to give. He may be being genuine with Nancy, which may be a necessity to be as good at his job as he is, but like A.I.’s Gigolo Joe, he has to transform for each of his clients to fit the needs of their particular fantasy. Leo reveals parts of his life that seem true, but the only moment we get with him where we can feel confident that we are seeing something of the real him is when Nancy reveals that she has researched him, learning his real name, and breaching his professional anonymity. At that moment, he rages at Nancy, making cutting comments that are informed by her intimacy with him, and he storms out of the hotel room, asking her not to contact him again. They will reconcile for the film's final act, but again, we can’t say that we are seeing anything more of him than his professional mask.
Even if we take Leo as being wholly sincere, he doesn’t have much of an arc in the film because he is already young and self-actualized. He has lingering unresolved issues with his family around his work, but he is enthusiastically doing what he wants to do and helping others do the things that they want to do. He has a small character arc in that he does eventually confide in Nancy that he did tell his brother what he actually does for a living, but otherwise, he doesn’t change much because he doesn’t need to. He is living the life he wants and he already has that feeling that Nancy’s after, that feeling that everything is still ahead of him, because it is.
Nancy comes to Leo because she is struggling with having reached her age. I could add an ‘and’ there, but at its heart, it’s really just that. All else aside, there are points when we age when we see the things that are and are not behind us, and what is or is not still ahead of us, and those realizations can be hard. Nancy, while trying to articulate to Leo what it is exactly that she’s after, says that she doesn’t want to be young again. She has enough sense to remember that being young is a trial all of its own. What she wants is the feeling of being young. The feeling of still having everything ahead of you. This is a desire we all will become ever more familiar with as we age, and the pleasure of this film is that it finds an honest and useful way to depict how we might contend with that desire in a healthy way, without ever pretending that we could ever achieve the actual feeling that Nancy is after. We would be delusional if we were to convince ourselves that we could feel that young again, but we can always feed that feeling that at least there are some things worth looking forward to that are still ahead of us. Right now, wherever we are in our lives, we are living in a comparative youth that we will one day look back upon fondly, and there are still things to do, and see, and choose that we won’t be able to later. We may see the lines and blemishes in the mirror that weren't there before, but we will one day be nostalgic for the way we look today. There are opportunities and experiences that are closed to us now, but one day, we will look back warmly at the opportunities that were still before us. There is a reductive sense in which we could say that the film's message is just one of carpe diem, but more at work here is making peace with the dwindling kinds and number of diems we have left to carpe.
Emma Thompson gives us a pretty fearless performance. She’s willing to let Nancy be complicated, and we don’t always sympathize with her as she complains about her husband, and children, and students. She lets us take a long, lingering look at her 63-year-old naked body, but to see it as an alive and still sexual object. Something like Rodin’s ‘The Old Courtesan,’ a woman whose body has aged but is still part of a continuum with all the younger selves she once was. It’s not played for laughs, or drama, which would each give Thompson something to hide within. Instead, it’s something more immediate and visceral. This is simply a defenses view of what a 63-year-old woman looks like.
It’s interesting that Nancy, in her old life, was a religious education teacher, in part charged with teaching children about the morality around sex and how women ought to present themselves. We now watch her experience her own re-education, and having to grapple with how she might have led her student astray. This point is brought home with the third character in the film. We spend most of the running time with just Nancy and Leo, but in the final scene, while Nancy is trying to make amends with Leo for violating his privacy, she’s waiting for him in the hotel bar, and she is unexpectedly waited on by one of her former students, Becky (Isabella Laughland). Initially, Nancy spars with Becky. Perhaps Nancy’s just being defensive, having run into someone that knows the real her while she’s waiting for her assignation with Leo. Perhaps there is something triggering for Nancy in Becky’s comparative youth, a feeling that perhaps informed her previous relationship with her students. But, Nancy has grown. Before she and Leo leave to head upstairs, she stops to tell Becky exactly what she’s come to the hotel for and that she was wrong to teach her the things she did about female sexuality. It’s not said explicitly, but while Nancy is seizing the day in regards to her own needs, staking a claim on what will make her happy, she’s also stopping to do what she can to make sure that Becky doesn’t make the same mistake with her life. The time goes quick, so whenever possible, make an effort to seize joy where you can, and don’t let anyone tell you different.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.