Movies | July 13, 2022 6:57 am

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” Is a Film About Female Pleasure. Here’s Why Every Man Should Watch It.

The buzzy new Emma Thompson flick is a masterclass in modern masculinity

A still from "Good Luck to You Leo Grande" shows stars Emma Thompson (as Nancy Stokes) and Daryl McCormack (as Leo Grande) sitting side by side in bed.
Most men could stand to learn a thing or two from Leo Grande.
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The first time Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) and Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) meet in the new film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, he joins her in the hotel room she’s booked for them; he’s a sex worker and she’s a retired school teacher and widow. He walks through the door and asks if he can kiss her on the cheek.

For some reason, that moment almost made me tear up. 

Over the next ninety minutes, director Sophie Hyde and writer Katy Brand layer moment after moment like this: tender, intimate, honest and aspirational — painting a nuanced portrait of sex and pleasure and the fundamentally human experience of seeking both. With a cast made up almost entirely of Thompson, a multi-Oscar winner, and McCormack, a newcomer with the presence and skill of an actor decades into his career, the film offers one of the most profoundly felt depictions of intimacy I’ve ever seen. 

Like a play, it takes place almost entirely in one room — but within that room, the story takes us through many worlds. Nancy has lived a life devoid of pleasure, her late husband having been her only sexual partner. Now, two years after his death, she feels ready to live — to really live — for the first time. Leo Grande is about the confines of being a woman in a world that constantly and unrelentingly attacks and minimizes our pleasure — stigmatizing it, scandalizing it — and about the messy unraveling that comes with unlearning that toxicity. 

It’s a film about female pleasure, but every man should see it.

Leo (this is not his real name, nor Nancy Stokes hers) provides both emotional and sexual intimacy to his clients — to whatever extent and in whatever form they require it, he explains to Nancy, outlining the diverse array of services requested of him. He sells his company, he says; what that means to each of his clients is something different. 

In the role, McCormack is a masterclass in masculinity, and not the machismo of toxic masculinity nor the false tenderness of the boastful “male feminist.” Instead, Leo exhibits a form of manliness that feels like a relic, a lost art and yet somehow uniquely modern. His welcome kiss to Nancy felt old fashioned; his asking her first did not. 

That balance of initiative and respect is what makes Leo so irresistible, an approach all men would benefit to take cues from. At the start, Nancy is skittish, jumpy and awkward like an anxious teenager on a first date. Grande doesn’t take advantage of her vulnerability. Instead, he leads, exhibiting a gentle control that allows her to relinquish to him, that abates her fears without ever, for a second, letting her forget that the choice is hers entirely. 

His appeal is simple and none of it is particularly radical or surprising; he asks her questions about herself, he uses humor to disarm her. He’s acutely attuned to her physical cues, knowing exactly when to step in and encourage her with a kiss or a caress, and when to ease back like a gentle current, sensing her hesitance and softening against it. It doesn’t hurt that McCormack is breathtaking: strikingly handsome with warm eyes and a body that looks like it was carved from stone, abs that are impossibly defined without looking harsh or overly cut, broad shoulders and a narrow waist that give him a sort of old Hollywood appeal. And he is, of course, a professional, skilled in his craft. To that end, the film’s depiction of sex work ​​— its importance and its complexity — is a triumph.

But we see glints of who Leo is outside of that room at times during the film, and it isn’t all as neat and tidy as that welcome kiss or the perfectly creased trousers that move like water on his frame. 

This, too, is a lesson for men. Because it’s not just the sexually intuitive side of Leo Grande that brings Nancy pleasure — not in the end, at least. Sure, the physical gratification of their intimate relationship brings worth in and of itself, but the true power of the film comes as we watch how their understanding of each other grows, and the way it depicts the interconnectedness of that understanding. The message is not, to be clear, that sex without emotional intimacy or familiarity is less than; it is not that we need to know our partners deeply to get off. If anything, the juxtaposition of Nancy’s decades-long marriage with her relatively brief dalliance with Leo proves that longevity in a relationship does not promise comfort or pleasure. 

Instead the film is a study in boundaries and conflict and how we navigate these trials in the moment, how sexual consent and emotional consent are inextricably linked. 

Just as Nancy has parts of her life she is trying to run from, so does Leo, despite the confidence he projects in their meetings. And as they navigate sexual pleasure, they come up against the oft-unavoidable reality that with sex comes parts of ourselves that feel disparate from the carnal release of fucking — our trauma, our pain, our history, the indelible curvatures that make us who we are both in and out of the bedroom. Whether we have sex to escape them or indulge them, those facets of our beings instruct the sex we have; our ability to enjoy pleasure is often limited — or heightened — by the extent to which we know ourselves. 

Some of these boundaries — like where we like to be touched, how we like to be penetrated, where we want our lovers’ mouths, or eyes — are explicit; Leo gently checking in with Nancy throughout their encounters is a perfect illustration of how deeply erotic and sexy consent really is. Nancy’s constant concern for Leo’s needs and his pleasure, on the other hand, shows how easy it is to become anxious or overwhelmed by the desire to do the right thing. Other lines in our relationships — like the ones between the image we sell to each other and the person we are underneath it, the one between the parts of ourselves we think are sexy and the parts of us we worry will repel — are often less defined.

Sex finds us at our most vulnerable; it can also invoke our most artificial selves. When we try to reconcile these realities, things sometimes get messy — whether you’re a widower who has never orgasmed before, or a sex worker who is every woman’s fantasy. What Good Luck to You, Leo Grande proves is: it’s not about how we fall apart — how we come undone, exasperated, hurt, lost or regretful — but how we come together (pun very much intended) at the end of it all.