Even in its truncated virtual Covid-afflicted form last year, the Sundance Film Festival was remarkably able to debut several movies that a year later we are still talking about in the Oscar conversation including CODA, Jockey, Passing, Flee, and Mass. Maybe this success was due to the fact they all had one word titles, but more realistically it was because despite all the drawbacks, the fest honchos picked very well and now awards voters are enjoying the riches. As I have been seeing one film after another in this year’s (virtual) fest I find myself looking for that breakout movie or performance which with the right distribution we will be talking about still a year from now. There have been some promising performances so far from the likes of Julianne Moore, Bill Nighy and a couple still to come later, but the wow factor really hit me in seeing Emma Thompson in the British film Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, premiering today at Sundance, where to put it mildly, she knocks it out of the park. This is Thompson at her best, a witty, dazzling. and above all brave performance that will undoubtedly be talked about. Her co-star Daryl McCormack in this two-hander is equally good in the movie which centers on a 60ish widowed mother of two and religious studies teacher who hires a sex worker for a tryst in a hotel room. It is much more complicated than that, in this story of two disparate souls who come together, one full of anxiety and past regrets, the other professional to his core but with a guard he will not let down and a line he will not cross.
This, quite by an accident of timing, also turns out to be the perfect movie to make in a pandemic. Two stars, one set (well at least until the final act ) , and a lot of dialogue actually make this screenplay by Katy Brand really pop, particularly in the skilled hands of a director , Sophie Hyde, who is perfectly matched to the material . Watching it I kept thinking this would be a killer Broadway play. In its own way it has some kinship to shows like Same Time Next Year and Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks, but Hyde with some terrific work by her team of artisans manages to make what could have been static in the wrong hands, a thoroughly cinematic journey.
Thompson plays Nancy Stokes (real name? don’t think so ) whose nice but uneventful marriage of 31 years to a good but unexciting man ended with his death a couple of years ago. She has two grown kids, one a
son she thinks is pretty unremarkable, and she teaches Religious Studies. At 60+ she also has summoned the courage to take one more whack at life and works up the nerve to hire a young sex worker who goes by the professional name of Leo Grande (McCormack). This is something this somewhat repressed and certainly sexually unadventurous woman has never done, and it doesn’t come cheap. She is a grab bag of anxieties and doubts when she enters the hotel room soon to be joined by a knock at the door and the entrance of Leo, who looks just as stunning to her in person as he did in the photo on the internet site. This meeting, limited by a clock ticking down the couple of hours she could afford, is incredibly awkward with Nancy unleashing a life full of fear, self body shaming, and yes, fantasies if the grass really is greener on the other side. Leo is cool throughout, a well-dressed and spoken pro who has seen it all (he even admits to Nancy when she asks that his oldest client he ever had was 82). When the talk comes down to sex, and her needs Leo has his work cut out for him. This meeting ends with a tentative jump into the deep end, but it is just the beginning.
Brand and Hyde break this story up into four acts essentially, the second meeting one where Nancy comes in with a prepared list of sexual activities she is willing and wanting to check off her “f**kit” list, no deviations please and let’s get them out of the way. But with this outing her curiosity about Leo as a person starts to come front and center, increasing to a dangerous place when she hits too many nerves in their third meeting, or act 3, where raw feelings and privacy invasions erupt. The final act brings a change of pace, and a brief appearance by another character named Becky (Isabella Laughland in an amusing turn), as well as some unexpected plot twists.
This is a character study for both Thompson and McCormack to dive into with abandon , and that they do erasing inhibitions physically, but adding them up in other ways that makes this sexual cat and mouse game never less than fascinating to watch where it takes us – and them – next. It is a movie about shedding the past, forging intimacy on more than one level, making human connections, and discovering a whole new you. Both stars could not be better, and in fact it marks a true breakout to the mainstream for British stage and TV actor McCormack who can certainly give Rege-Jean Page a run for his money, no doubt. For Thompson she better be prepared for another awards go-round come a year from now. This is one of her finest moments, and an irresistible role, and rare one for actors of a certain age.