Good Luck to You, Leo Grande presents an interesting flip on Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. In that enduring classic, Dustin Hoffman’s wallflower college grad falls for the self-assured charm and sexual awareness of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a much-older woman. Here, Emma Thompson’s Nancy Stokes is a middle-aged widow whose life has been devoid of passion and adventure. Three decades of marriage supplied her with nothing but hollow, antiseptic companionship. Now, Nancy engages the services of Leo (Daryl McCormack), a handsome, charismatic young sex worker. Over the course of this sly, meditative little comedy-drama, Nancy hopes Leo can educate her on the pleasures she’s never had.
Unlike The Graduate, director Sophie Hyde pushes away the usual distractions: There are no meddling parents or gossiping neighbors; no awkward social events. In fact, Leo and Nancy’s lives are defined by absences. Her relationship with her kids is chilly and distant. He has a strained relationship with his mother and brother, at least in part because they suspect what he does for a living. These are two people who toil in abject loneliness: Nancy has no one, and Leo has no one, except for lonely souls like her.
Their first encounter is supremely awkward. She invites him to a posh hotel room, and helps herself to the minibar before he arrives. Even so, Nancy presents with the jittery nerves of someone who’s about to try skydiving. She fidgets, fumbles, and babbles incoherently. Meanwhile, Leo arrives with a meticulously constructed facade of serene self-assurance. He has easy answers to her anxious questions, and just the right demeanor to quell her terror.
As Nancy paces and frets, Leo attempts to draw out the real person buried beneath the emotional rubble. We learn that Nancy’s husband regarded sex as a menial chore, and he had no interest in satisfying her needs. She’s never experienced an orgasm, or even true lust, for that matter. Her primal urges have been dormant for so long, she now wonders if they even still exist.
At the same time, Leo can’t help but reveal himself. He enjoys being a walking, talking salve for the ignored and sexually repressed. This stems from his ugly, fractious upbringing: Leo’s family regards him as a disappointment, so it makes sense for him to derive meaning in pleasing strangers. He and Nancy arrange more meetings, and their mutual curiosity expands until both inevitably overstep their bounds.
Leo Grande amounts to an intimate, tightly constructed stage play–a two-hander, but in the best way. Thompson and McCormack immediately display a potent, sizzling chemistry that enhances the entire film. She’s a rumbling geyser of repressed desires and aching regrets, just ready to billow into a deadly release. Nancy’s also the perfect foil for Leo: She’s a magnificently unhappy person, who’s never experienced climax before. He swears he doesn’t take all this as a challenge, but it’s clear Leo regards Nancy as a long-term project.
Hyde presents most of this dramedy within the confines of Nancy’s hotel room. When the characters move around, her camera isn’t far behind, ready to frame them in an intimate (and sometimes unflattering) close-up. Taken with Katy Brand’s real, relaxed screenplay, Leo Grande truly makes us feel like invisible observers.
In the end, this film functions both as a skillfully perceptive study of human nature and a showcase for two phenomenal actors. Leo Grande will make you think deeply and laugh out loud, much like The Graduate did decades ago. But this movie doesn’t delve into the seduction so much as the satisfaction in its aftermath: What are Nancy and Leo ultimately looking for, and what will that say about them as human beings? Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a funny, frank, and compelling film, and it will demand multiple viewings to truly grasp its magic.
97 min. R. Hulu.