Emma Thompson plays Nancy, a widowed retired schoolteacher, who has never experienced the joy of sex and who hires a young sex worker, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) to help her rectify this. It is a brave and very scary decision for her.
Their meeting is in a hotel room, where, as in any potential sexual encounter, they start with small talk and a glass of something alcoholic from the mini bar. Nancy’s nervousness and embarrassment are in sharp contrast to Leo’s laid back charm and encouragement. In his manner he’s a bit like a therapist, which in a way of course he is. In this first meeting Thompson’s performance – her awkward body language as well as what she says and doesn’t say – tell us a lot about who she is. Her description of sex with her husband, the only lover she has ever known, is both funny and desperately sad.
We leave the couple before the deed is done, but it was obviously a success as in the next scene she has booked Leo for a second encounter. And this time she is a lot more confident. She even has a “shopping list” of sexual experiences she wants to try out. As her relationship with Leo progresses, she prises a little bit from him about his background. But is this a real friendship that is developing or purely a professional one?
Apart from a scene towards the end involving a former pupil of Nancy, the two actors are the only characters on screen for the entire film. And they totally hold our attention.
Thompson always gives a good performance and her skills have grown with the years. This is one of her best and certainly bravest. Now middle aged, she is still a good looking woman but the camera does not spare the lines around Nancy’s big, sad eyes. And there is a shot at the end of her stark naked in front of a mirror, which tells us a lot about how far the character has travelled but must have taken bucket loads of courage for the actress to do.
McCormack as Leo is more than a match for her skills. He is charming, empathetic and totally confident, until Nancy cracks his façade, when he touches our hearts. He is also very good looking and has a most beautiful body.
Congratulations to writer Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde for making a truly feminist film, which is deeply sympathetic, subtle and not in the least strident.