Producers: Debbie Gray and Adrian Politowski   Director: Sophie Hyde   Screenplay: Katy Brand   Cast: Daryl McCormack, Emma Thompson, Isabella Laughland, Charlotte Ware and Carina Lopes   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: B

Structured like a two-character play in which a third person is introduced at the close solely as a catalyst for a final resolution, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” centers on the bond that develops  between a repressed fifty-something widow and the young, charismatic sex worker she hires in an effort to bring fulfillment to her emotionally parched life.  It works because Katy Brand’s writing is skillfully calculated and Sophie Hyde’s direction adept, but mostly because the lead performances are expertly gauged, and complement each other so nicely.

Emma Thompson appears first as Nancy Stokes—an assumed name—who is nervously puttering about a handsome hotel room in an unnamed city, awaiting the arrival of the man she’s hired for the day, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack)—also a pseudonym.  She looks upon herself as frumpy and undesirable, an erstwhile religious studies teacher, stern with her students, whose marriage was drab and who, she reveals, has never had an orgasm, though she’s faked them.  Leo turns out to be a handsome, articulate young man attuned to each client’s moods and needs and, as her questions prompt him to explain, content in his profession, at which he’s clearly a success.

The film follows the two through a series of four meetings, three in the hotel room and the last in its coffee shop.  The first two consist largely of Leo’s sensitive efforts to draw the frazzled Nancy out of her shell, encouraging her to become comfortable with the situation and allow herself to embrace the possibility of pleasure and self-acceptance her decision to hire him presumes. 

In the course of their conversation, of course, details of their pasts are revealed.  She discloses how unhappy her marriage was and her ambivalent feelings about her grown son and daughter.  She also describes her teaching career, making clear that she was hardly tolerant of the students’ behavior.  He, in turn, eventually admits to an unhappy relationship with his mother, and the distance he feels from his brother, a soldier.  Their physical contact grows increasingly close as well, concentrating on the amusingly obsessive Nancy’s desire to check off a list of experiences she wants to have before they say goodbye to one another.

The third session is more volatile.  By now Nancy has lost her inhibitions, and true intimacy is achieved. But a confrontation erupts when she admits that she has researched Leo’s past and discovered his true identity.  He considers that a violation of the agreement between them and responds angrily to the revelation.  Left alone, Nancy disrobes and examines her body in a mirror, finally at ease with herself emotionally as well as physically.

But of course she feels the need to apologize to the young man who’s helped her so much, and so arranges their fourth, chaste meeting in the coffee shop which is interrupted by a plain-spoken waitress (Isabella Laughland) who, in a coincidence one might find somewhat hard to swallow, turns out to be one of her ex-students.  Embarrassment, however, gives way to something more meaningful as Nancy finally accepts not only who she is, but who she has been.

Brand’s script has a certain mechanical feel—structurally it’s a mite reminiscent of the kinds of carefully manufactured contrivances that Neil Simon turned out in his heyday, the comic and dramatic beats seeming precisely calibrated for best effect.  And while Hyde, working closely with cinematographer Bryan Mason, achieves considerable fluidity choreographing the action in a basically closed environment, there’s nothing truly exceptional in her direction.

But the final result is engaging and touching because Thompson and McCormack work so well together, registering the emotional shifts the characters experience over the course of their relationship without descending into caricature.  True, one might find Thompson’s nervousness at the start a bit too comically exaggerated, but she uses that to convey in a nuanced fashion how Nancy’s attitude shifts gradually over time.  McCormack’s Leo has a more limited emotional range, but when called on to convey the vulnerability beneath the young man’s smoothly professional surface—and his anger over what he sees as a breach of trust—the actor is expressive but controlled.

Technically the film is nothing extraordinary, but in addition to Mason’s nimble cinematography, the production design by Miren Maranon is fine and Sian Jenkins’ costumes well chosen.  Mason also served as editor, managing the rhythms of the piece nicely, and Stephen Rennicks’ score, expanded with some added tracks, fits the seriocomic mood.

Thompson will probably garner the most attention for the film, and hers is the showier role; she also proves as willing to embrace her physicality as Nancy is at the close, which will be thought a daring decision.  But for a two-hander to succeed, an able partner is a prerequisite, and McCormack proves equal to the task of matching her.  That’s the key to making “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” a winning duet.