“Pleasure is a wonderful thing. It’s something we should all have,” Emma Thompson’s line in the sex comedy-drama two hander ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ seems to unite the film’s two main subjects: the liberation of female desire and sex work as a purposeful and valuable service in society.

The story opens with Emma Thompson’s character ‘Nancy Stokes’, a retired widow in a semi-posh hotel room, nervously waiting the arrival of her hired sex worker, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack). When he walks in, dashing and put-together, Nancy becomes flustered. It all comes spilling out: her only sexual partner in her life has been her husband, she’s never had an orgasm, nor has she ever given or received oral sex. She’s determined to finally explore her sex life. What follows are four different meets between Nancy and Leo in the hotel, in which a personal connection is built and Nancy is finally sexually liberated. 

Though the film has been critiqued for being OTT on the comedy and the characters being occasionally unbelievable, Leo Grande succeeds where it needs to succeed. The issues of repressed desire in older women and the stigma and preconceived ideas surrounding sex work are tackled with elegance and emotion. 

Sex Work

For anyone who hasn’t used a sex worker or been a sex worker, the film quickly dispels any wonder and myths surrounding the profession. Because the story focuses solely on the meets of Leo and Nancy, a typical ‘session’ is able to be explored almost in real time detail and with refreshing realism- there’s no attempt to make these meets into sultry, smoky sex work scenes. 

Little details, like Leo dropping his cool charisma when Nancy goes to the bathroom, before downing some alcohol from the mini bar and scoffing a Mars bar highlights the ‘work’ Leo and the real Leo- or Connor, his real name. However, Leo’s change in behaviour isn’t shown as him being in-genuine. There’s enough nuance in his character for an audience to see that he really does enjoy his job and although he offers a service, and the character he creates is a character, it is still one he enjoys playing, and therefore can find truth and real emotion in. All sex workers have to put on some sort of front and live some sort of double identity, but that alter ego is still a part of themselves. 

Common preconceptions about sex workers are debunked, as Nancy struggles to understand why Leo does sex work, and suspects that he surely feels exploited or demeaned. She even expresses her surprise at the fact that he seems well educated. Leo good naturedly laughs these remarks off, and even tests her by playing the ‘good whore’ expressing that he’s doing sex work to ‘save up to go to college’, knowing that this will make his work more morally acceptable to her. Nancy proves him right in her pleasantly surprised reaction, before Leo admits he’s joking. Nancy is clearly anti-sex work and doesn’t understand how anyone would do it out of choice, Leo is a true reflection of many modern day sex workers who are well versed on the politics of their job, and yet don’t feel they are being exploited in their profession. It’s rare to see an on screen representation of these two (largely) generational views on sex work, that we see everywhere around us in the real world today.

These clashing standpoints eventually come to a head when Nancy fails to respect Leo’s privacy and tells him that she’s found out his real name. She goes on to victimise him for his work, suggesting that she could speak to his mother (who doesn’t know what he does), and finally suggests that herself and Leo could continue meeting, outside of his profession. This inappropriate behaviour is all too true to sex workers, who constantly have to deal with clients who begin to want more than just the service they are paying for, and become angry when they find they can’t have that. 

However, whilst the film tackles these very real annoyances that sex workers have to deal with everyday, it focuses less on the hate, and more on the love. From the very first meet, we see the beauty in the sex work profession. Jumping straight to a bedroom setting allows for intimacy to develop much faster- not just physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy. Stripped from the performativity of sitting across a restaurant table to somebody and instead laying next to them in bed, you’re able to unravel more naturally and talk about the things that really matter. That olf chesnut called ‘pillow talk’… It’s through sex work that these strangely immediate close connections can form, being thrown into an intimate setting with a total stranger from the very first meet.

Leo believes that sex work at its roots is a harmless and crucial profession that could be safely regulated if legalised. His love for his profession is one of the most pleasurable parts of the film, which is most strongly recollected at a point where he expresses how much he enjoys simply being able to watch his client’s faces as they experience complete pleasure, and allow themselves to let go. Finally, in Nancy’s journey to sexual liberation, we as an audience see how sex work can be beneficial and incredibly wholesome, especially to a sexually repressed society.

The Older Woman and Repressed Desire

Emma Thompson’s character of Nancy is one that rings very true to many middle aged women in the 21st century, and her conflicting battle is one that I have seen in my own mother and many of her friends. That battle being a prudish judgement towards other women that stems from internalised sexism and jealousy, believing that by sexualising themselves, women are ‘asking for it’. This stands in contrast to a secret yearning to be that type of woman themselves, a woman who is sexually liberated inside and out. Once Nancy does overcome her fears and become sexually comfortable, she is then able to let go of her judgement, proving that her prudishness was only fueled by her own insecurities and internalised shame. 

When do we ever see a woman over 50 enjoy sexual pleasure on screen? When do we see the naked body of a woman over 50 on screen? If we do, the actor normally looks younger than her age or is very stereotypically attractive. Women as sexual beings are easily overlooked by society and subsequently by themselves. The ‘Invisible Woman’ trope is one that is all too real. Nancy voices her frustrations about her husband who never allowed her to give him oral as it was ‘demeaning for him’ but also never gave her oral, as it was also ‘demeaning for him’ exemplifying the sexual repression of a previous generation.

But Nancy has always wanted sex, always dreamed of pleasure, a privilege she was stripped of her entire life. Therefore to see Nancy enjoy her first orgasm, all on her own in the hotel bed in the final scene as Leo is searching for a toy that he thinks might help is a very special moment. It’s perhaps a lot easier for our generation, one that is much more sexually liberated. Many women from previous generations have lived their lives having never achieved orgasm or having more than a handful of sexual partners, never really knowing how to satisfy their own desires- too influenced by societal shame. We see in Leo Grande, that there is absolutely nothing shameful about pleasure. Nancy’s post-orgasm smile as she turns to Leo, languid, free, and warm, says it all. 

The final shot of Nancy on her own, naked, looking at herself in the mirror was a standout moment. I’ve always loved shots of women viewing themselves in a reflection- owning their own gaze so overtly. She holds her hand down to her vagina, as if to say ‘mine!’ And finally it really is hers. After a lifetime of sexual and emotional repression, Nancy is free.

I’m sure Good Luck to You, Leo Grande will bring plenty of knowing smiles to the faces of all the sex workers and to all the older women out there, but I hope it also has some resonance with everybody else, and sheds some light on two marginalised groups of society that are so often overlooked or misrepresented in film. 

 

Art
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Sex Work
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Iso

Iso

Author

Iso is a writer and filmmaker based in East London. She is passionate about all things erotic and leads a sexy, shame-free life in hope that she can inspire others to do the same. Originally from a Northern seaside town, she is naturally drawn to the best things in life: candyfloss, trashy karaoke bars and heart-shaped sunglasses.


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