Friday 24 June 2022

Nanny McPhee and the big bang: "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"

This pandemic won't be over until every movie in the Top 10 involves more than two people trysting in a room.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is exactly that: the kind of small indie venture that would have been easier to turn round during a moment of risk, centred on two people trysting in a hotel room. But it's also notable as a rare British movie about sex and sex work that doesn't succumb to the usual coy nudging and winking. (The director is the Australian import Sophie Hyde - following up 2019's Animals - who sees possibilities in this project a homegrown filmmaker may not have.) Granted, it's not as free and easy as any comparable French enterprise on this subject would be, and it still contains the odd sop to middle England: the casting of Emma Thompson (albeit a Thompson who proves more game, vulnerable and naked than she's ever been on screen), a glutinous Stephen Rennicks score, some early trappings of fairytale. Yet Hyde never shies away from the fact Katy Brand's script is founded on a transaction between consenting adults; the film's high placing at the UK box office this past weekend tells us there is clearly an audience keen to eavesdrop on a grown-up conversation about sex. If this was a production brought into being by lockdown restrictions (narrow-focused, manageable, cautious about introducing its handful of supporting characters come the third act), it's also one that meets the mass horniness lockdown brought about - that outbreak of hormones that made momentary hits out of otherwise skippable Netflix trash (365 Days, Sex/Life), and produced a localised outbreak of monkeypox once frotting recommenced - head on and full frontally.

Its Britishness is there in the fact the problem Brand's script sets out to solve is one of frustration, its point of focus not a nymphomaniac but a spinster. Thompson's "Nancy Stokes" (a pseudonym, we learn) has been driven by widowhood to seek the orgasm her sexually indifferent late husband failed to provide her with in his lifetime, employing twentysomething escort Leo (Daryl McCormack) for three sessions that correspond more or less to the film's three acts. So we reconvene in the same hotel room time and again, where nervous Nancy - a R.E. teacher by trade, further reassurance for the worriers of the Home Counties - over-thinks and over-verbalises, vacillating on what she actually wants ("it feels controversial, suddenly"), and her endlessly patient, gently buff swain tries to get the job done one way or another, realising his client may well need conversation - and some long-overdue attention and consideration - far more than she does the D. (A skilled tongue is hard to find.) The real D in Hyde's movie is dialogue: its extended chatter aims to initiate - and would appear to have succeeded in initiating - a wider societal conversation about the sexuality of the older woman. Nancy has been created to speak for an entire generation whose sex lives predated Bumble, Lovehoney and those VHS tapes presented by Margi Clarke, and who've thus known only functional, unexciting, drably British sex. The good news for the rest of us is that, thanks to Brand and Thompson, both graduates of TV sketch comedy, much of this talk is funny. Struck anew by the age gap between herself and Leo, Nancy blurts "I feel like Rolf Harris all of a sudden", only for the fresh-faced lad to have no idea who she's talking about. (A bit of a stretch, this, given that Harris was a fixture of primetime telly until well into the Noughties and a staple of the tabloids thereafter, but the timing is sharp enough to get the laugh.)

The Covid limitations are readily apparent. For a long while, the only real movement on screen is the not terribly long walk to the minibar and back. (Hyde betrays an awareness of this during her opening sequence, the last time until the finale we see Leo out on the street: you get the peculiar sensation of a movie dragging its feet before the title has even appeared.) Yet within those limitations, everything in GLTY, LG works rather well. It's actually more effective (and affecting) the closer Hyde's camera gets to the players: in its shots of trembling, tentative hands on flesh, the film seems to memorialise the touching that a lot of people have had to put on hold for the past two years. It almost goes without saying that Thompson, who's absorbed the great lesson of the Meryl Streep career in giving herself to every kind of role at least once, is very good here. Her Nancy is a convincing depiction of someone led to believe she's more moribund than she really is, and who never looks as old as she sounds. (Notice how rejuvenated she appears after the pair's first meeting: this is a woman who's been reminded of what's still possible in the bedroom.) Her eventual orgasm is the ultimate crowdpleaser: everybody gets what they want. McCormack has a tricky assignment, as a less experienced performer called upon to inhabit what first appears a female fantasy. ("I'll just change," Nancy says, heading into the bathroom with her nightie. "Don't change too much," Leo retorts, the smoothie.) Yet his attentiveness grew on me, and he has the relaxed poise you might indeed want from someone in his profession, giving Leo a sense he knows what he's doing, while remaining open to suggestion.

Here's some idea of what Hyde's film preserves. The bland Working Title version of this script would almost certainly have ironed out one kink: that Leo also services male clients, or at least one male client who gets him to dress up as a cat and ignore him. (Desire: ever irrational, ever inexplicable.) Even more subversive: the character's mid-film monologue about the benefits that might follow from the eventual legalisation of sex work - this, you'll remember, in an Emma Thompson vehicle that went Top 5 at the UK box office this past weekend. The script makes one false move, a third-act crisis that's so rotely by-the-screenwriter's-manual you're reminded you're watching a movie (in which such fallouts have become a commonplace) rather than folks in a room (who fall out less easily). Yet Brand redeems even this slip with a very endearing coda, one in which she returns to her most rewarding idea: two people feeling out what the other one is comfortable with, a scenario that meshes with the internal dilemmas and external hesitations of two actors hired to impersonate intimacies at a moment when everyone bar the current inhabitants of 10 Downing Street was doing their bit by staying apart. "As well as the blowjobs, it's also quite nice to get to know one another," Leo observes at one point in his and Nancy's courtship ritual. That equivocating "quite nice" - reframing a paid hook-up in terms Paddington might use to talk about the weather - marks Good Luck to You, Leo Grande as inescapably British. Yet at its sharpest, Hyde's film views sex as more than a matter for sniggering over, rather a conduit for getting to know someone, intimately. It's a basic truth, but many bigger British films have been far less honest about the complex business of human want.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is now playing in selected cinemas.

No comments:

Post a Comment