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Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a radical reminder that older women are sexual beings

Emma Thompson’s new film shifts the focus from standard Hollywood sex scenes that focus on young people and only one way of getting intimate

The sexual coming-of-age stories that dominate our culture tend to centre around the discoveries of teenagers, despite the fact that many of us don’t grasp the nature of our desires until much later (if at all). Heterosexual women brought up in an era that taught them to prioritise male pleasure can easily end up in a deferent relationship with their partner. 

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande tells the story of Nancy (Emma Thompson), a 55-year-old widow who hires a gorgeous 20-something sex worker, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) to give her what her husband did not in 33 years of marriage: an orgasm. For – like 10-15 per cent percent of women – she has never had one.

The film unfolds over multiple meetings in the upmarket Sheffield hotel room that Nancy hires by the hour. There is a spritzing of sex and nudity, however, the film is dominated by verbal sparring as Nancy’s anxieties cause her to throw obstacles in the way of the services she has procured. Leo is an assured presence, adept at diffusing his client’s insecurities with wit and warmth. At its best, the script by comedian Katy Brand, fizzes with screwball energy.

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Front-and-centre is the message that older women are sexual beings. After Leo compliments the sexiness of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, Nancy says, “I was waiting for you to say, ‘for her age.’ When a woman is over 42, people usually say, ‘She’s sexy for her age.’”

“No, she’s empirically sexy,” counters Leo.

Although the theatrical set-up means that the film veers into feeling contrived – in sharp contrast to director Sophie Hyde’s kinetic previous film, Animals – it has a radical educational potential not usually found in mainstream portrayals of female sexual pleasure.

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Notions of what sex is still foreground penetrative sex, whereas the research shows that only 35 per cent of heterosexual women climax from vaginal sex alone, compared with 80 per cent who always or usually have an orgasm with a combination of genital stimulation, deep kissing and oral sex.

Although this common knowledge amongst women, the de facto Hollywood sex scene makes intercourse the main dish, with the female partner seemingly satisfied by this. For Nancy, she is so disillusioned with penetrative sex that she does not believe that she has the capacity to climax. She has internalised the consequences of bad, uncurious sex, and so what she experiences with Leo is nothing short of a revelation.

The most powerful aspect of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is Nancy’s emotional arc and how it corresponds to the unlocking of her sexual identity. She is initially full of misgivings and self-loathing, peppering Leo with questions about what he gets out of this and whether he feels exploited. Her desire is an abstract concept that has yet to permeate her wired body. She has a sense that something is missing but – crucially – she is so alienated from what it’s like to exist as a sexual being that she doesn’t know how to relax into that mode.

The need for relaxation as a precursor to a sexual awakening is the insight undergirding the push-and-pull of Leo and Nancy’s relationship. A retired schoolteacher, on their second meeting, Nancy produces a to-do list, featuring oral sex and the 69 position, that she hopes to rattle through. Leo sees right through her brisk pragmatism, and tries to encourage her to loosen up by taking her in his arms and dancing.

Leo is – to all intents and purposes – a fantasy figure, sculpted into a key that opens up her pleasure. This is all part of the Grande service, and although the film does eventually attempt to ground this professional showman with reveals about his true identity, his character fundamentally exists to demonstrate what women need. 

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McCormack with his piercing green eyes, muscular physique and amiable repartee holds his own against Thompson as she pinballs between vulnerability and defensiveness. Progress is hard-won. When she is natural, laughing as they dance, it scans like a breakthrough.

Leo essays a type of sex worker who understand the mind-body connection and patiently talks Nancy through body image issues. It is made clear that pressure is the anaethma to sexual pleasure. Once she becomes at ease with wanting him, Thompson sinks into a different tempo of performance, slowing down and acting from a more embodied, less cerebral place.

“I wish I’d known about it when I was younger, I would have made the necessary changes,” she says towards the end, a new woman. While hers in an inspiring fiction, true progress will look like a widespread male awakening to the nature of female sexual pleasure. Good luck to you, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande in spreading awareness far and wide.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is out now in cinemas.Follow Sophie Monks Kaufman on Twitter

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