By John H. Foote
(****) Streaming on Prime
Emma Thompson should be declared a national treasure for Great Britain. She remains, at 63, one of the most fearless actresses working in film. Though it has been three decades since she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, and three years later one for Screenplay Adaptation, she might very well lead the pack of potential nominees for Best Actress with her superb performance in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.
As Nancy, a retired, widowed school teacher who has never in her entire life experienced sexual pleasure, so she hires a handsome young sex worker to help her achieve that, and a bucket list of other sexual delights.
The actress has had a fine career but more memorable I think at the beginning than in recent years. She has always been busy, but her more prolific work was in the nineties when she was winning Oscars and being nominated for them. And remember, it was on TV’s Cheers that we discovered what a superb comedian Thompson was!
Her major debut was in Henry V (1989) in a virtually non-speaking role, followed by the excellent film noir from Kenneth Branagh Dead Again (1991), then her husband. Stunning best describes her work in Howard’s End (1992) which won her every Best Actress award available to her that year including the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Nominated again the following year in The Remains of the Day (1993), again under the direction of James Ivory, she and co-star Anthony Hopkins were superb in this muted loved story. That same year she was also a nominee for Best Supporting Actress as the fire breathing attorney in In the Name of the Father (1993). She was again a Best Actress nominee for her fine work in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and won the Oscar for the excellent script she adapted from the Jane Austen novel. Next came a performance as a Hilary Clinton-esque character in Mike Nichols super black comedy Primary Colors (1998) in which she and John Travolta were a superb Clinton couple headed for the White House if they could stay ahead of scandal. Travolta was a shockingly convincing Bill Clinton, despite the different name.
Her finest screen performance came for HBO in Wit (2001) as a woman academic dying of cancer. Brilliant and haunting the film was an uncompromising look at dealing with death, and she earned a well deserved Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Actress. She was then part of two ensembles in Love Actually (2003) a now beloved Christmas classic, and the magnificent HBO adaptation of Angels in America (2003) in which she portrayed three roles, the best of them a curious Angel who descends from the heavens with messages for certain humans on earth struggling with AIDS or decision.
Her career after that seemed to become a series of strong supporting roles, and a handful of strong roles in which she was excellent but never enough to land in the Oscar race again. In fact, her last Academy Award nomination for acting came in 1995!
Nanny McPhee (2005) and the sequel Nanny McPhee Returns (2010) were both huge hits at the box office and well received children’s films with Thompson excelling as the ugly nanny who becomes more beautiful as the families love her and accept her. She and Dustin Hoffman gave lovely performances in the gentle love story Last Chance Harvey (2008) in which I suspect they both danced close to Oscar but to no avail. Thompson was part of the Society of Great British Actors to appear in the Harry Potter Franchise as a clairvoyant witch rightfully terrified of Lord Voldemort, and her small role as the Headmistress in An Education (2009) was well received by critics.
In 2013s’s Saving Mr. Banks she gave her best performance in years in as writer P.L. Travers, trying to give over her novel “Mary Poppins” for a film at Disney but worried it will ruin the memory of her beloved father. Tom Hanks was wonderful as Walt Disney, but it was Thompson who earned the lion’s share of excellent reviews for her superb performance as the author reluctant to give her film over for a film. For her fine performance Thompson SHOULD HAVE been nominated for Best Actress but was not among the nominees. More recently she has appeared in two major Disney films, the first as Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (2017) one of Disney’s new live action remakes of their animated classics, and the second, superb along with Emma Stone in Cruella (2021), a hilarious comedy about the beginnings of Cruella De Ville the vile villain from 101 Dalmatians (1961).
And now this new film in which she is luminous and utterly enchanting.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande feels like a play but surprisingly is an original screenplay written by Katy Brand that I would think might yet end up on the stage. Directed by Sophie Brand, the film is a confident work from a director confident enough to let her actors run with it. One of those movies where the director sits back and lets the artists roll, likely saying little being the very best direction she could offer.
As Nancy Stokes (not her real name), Thompson portrays a very sad woman who now in her sixties longing for sexual satisfaction and passion in love making. Her husband is gone, her children grown, and she worries life will pass her by, so she hires a handsome young sex worker, Leo Grande, beautifully portrayed by the soulful Daryl McCormack, to guide her through lovemaking as it should be done. Through a series of meetings in a hotel, he teaches her that sex, great sex, begins in the mind with a connection to the partner. They spend a lot of time just talking and learning about one another and, while she offers Leo life lessons, she herself learns not to judge. Though she does not think he will be able, he does indeed bring her to orgasm, many orgasms and teaches her about passionate love making.
She is stunned by his beauty, and it is true, McCormack is what we call a “beautiful man” with striking eyes that seem to search her very soul for answers to who she is.
And though she tries to work out who he is academically, she finds she cannot and instead gives herself over to the passion he offers. They have their ups and downs, Nancy digs into his past and finds out more than he wants anyone to know about him, and very nearly ruins their friendship.
With just two major roles, this is what they refer to in the theatre world as a “two hander” similar to Same Time, Next Year (1978) or Sleuth (1972) and without the magical performances the actors offer, it would not work.
I worry McCormack might be overlooked because Thompson is so stunning in her role, but I hope not. One would not work without the other, and McCormack is so very confident in his role he desrves all the praise coming to him.
Thompson is astonishing, simply off the charts brilliant. It is a performance filled with nuance and subtle gestures that tell us so much about Nancy and we see her opening up through their meetings. She becomes bolder, much more confident and allows him to ravage her time and time again giving into emotions long dormant and a sexual passion she has never known. Much will be made of a full frontal nude scene Thompson performs, looking at her naked body in a mirror, audiences (some) asking if we need to see a 60+ naked woman? Why not? She is beautiful for one thing, but it is still a 60+ body, gravity doing its thing, life having done the rest. We all have bodies, different sizes and shapes and I have never understood why people are so uptight with being naked. For me the scene was striking in its courage, and an astonishing acceptance Nancy has of her own sexual and physical being.
This is the kind of little film, like Pig (2021) with Nicolas Cage last year, that often gets forgotten come Oscar time. Here is hoping the growing membership of the Academy remembers Thompson at Oscar time for her superb performance here.
Miss Brand has a shot at a nomination for Original Screenplay as her writing is fresh and original, very honest and frank in her discussions of sex and sexuality.
I loved every second of this gentle, beautiful little film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.