Emma Thompson wants us to like our bodies. She knows it’s hard.

Searchlight Pictures
Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” “It’s a neutral gaze,” Thompson says of how she is seen on screen. “It’s not approval – ‘Oh my God, I look great.’ And it’s not, ‘Oh my God, I look horrible.’ It’s, ‘That’s my body. And I know that it can bring me joy.'”

“Everyone just looked angry,” says Emma Thompson, grimacing and gritting her teeth. She’s describing the movies featuring sex scenes that she watched as a teenager. “Everyone looked just sort of cross, and just sort of enraged by the whole thing,” she continued. “I just thought, ‘Is that what sex is supposed to be like? I don’t understand.’ Good grief, we have a long way to go.”

Thompson considers her new movie, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” at least “a step in the [right] direction.” She plays Nancy Stokes, a widow and retired teacher who hires a sex worker named Leo Grande (newcomer Daryl McCormack) to help break her out of a lifetime of sexual repression. Over the course of four meetings in an anonymous-looking hotel room, the two embark on an unlikely ally-ship, with Nancy eventually discovering, like Dorothy in Oz, that when it comes to fulfillment – sexual or otherwise – there’s no place like home.

Screenwriter Katy Brand wrote “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” at the beginning of the pandemic, inspired in part by “this notion of why we feel so guilty and ashamed of pursuing our own pleasure when it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Aware that as women age, they continue to put other people first, she continues, “Why do we temper [desire], why do we put it aside or put it last all the time, and feel bad if we put it up the priority list for even a minute?”

Brand, who lives in Germany, where sex work is legal, was also fascinated by people in the profession who approach it as a vocation. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” she says, is the product of her curiosity about “what happens when you bring those two things together.”

What happens in this movie is a seismic shift that feels personal but also generational: Leo is an avatar of a generation known for questioning conventional ideas about gender roles, binary identities and patriarchal power dynamics. The moment Leo walks through Nancy’s hotel room door, he asks for her permission to kiss her on the cheek – a recurring motif throughout the film.

Consent isn’t just normalized in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” Thompson observes, “it’s eroticized. Every time he says, ‘Is this OK?’ and Nancy says, ‘Yes,’ the ‘yes’ is such an erotic act. It’s the pulling of the thread a little tighter … then the thread drops again and then you pull it again, and each time you get closer together. It’s so beautiful to watch and feel. You feel these characters more than watch them.”

That was precisely what director Sophie Hyde ( “Animals”) had in mind when she was conceiving her approach to “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”: How to film a movie about sex, pleasure and the beauty of the human body without falling into the old male-gaze traps of exploitation and objectification? “I feel sort of sad that we think of sex as something visual,” Hyde says. “Oftentimes, I think [when] people come at sex, they know what it looks like, or ‘should’ look like, before they know what it feels like or what they want.”

McCormack plays Leo with a seductive combination of physical confidence and tenderness; when the camera is on his perfectly sculpted physique, the point of view feels admiring but not leering. Hyde says she studied the 2017 “Call Me By Your Name” for cues on how to film actors in a way that allows them to be both subject and object.

“I kept thinking, ‘How did they do this thing with Timothee Chalamet’s character, where I’m looking at him all the time, I’m noticing the beauty of who he is and his body and everything, but I feel with him all the time?'” she explains. “I’m not just looking at him. He’s not disposable in any way. He’s my entry point to the film.”

Hyde points to a scene in which Nancy asks Leo to take off his shirt and embarks on a slow, sensuous exploration of his body. Together with her cinematographer and editor, Bryan Mason, and sound designer Steven Fanagan, Hyde created an atmosphere in which “we’re with both of them across [the] scene” rather than vicariously identifying with one character over the other. “We go into a very close sequence of shots, much closer than lots of parts of the film,” she says, referring to a series of extreme close-ups, adding that she and Mason choreographed the actors and camera movements so that she and Mason could find “little moments” in editing, rather than block the movement out precisely. Over the course of the film, Fanagan would take away sounds of the city to reinforce Leo and Nancy’s intimacy. “That’s one of the moments when the city’s really gone,” Hyde says.

During the production of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” Hyde made a pact with her two stars: At any time, they could decide not to shoot something even if they had previously agreed to do it. They also had the right to ask for things to be removed during editing. “I think that [gave] them the freedom to do what they wanted to do … and know they’ve got the final call. They didn’t ever want to change anything. But I think they needed that power.”

The result is a film that, for all its modesty as a humane, funny two-hander about mismatched lovers, feels positively revolutionary. And nowhere is “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” more radical than in its frank and generous depiction of bodies – young and old, perfect and less than perfect. When “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” premiered at Sundance this year, Thompson was hailed as “brave” for the most talked-about shot in the film, when she unapologetically bares her 63-year-old body in front of a mirror. It’s a term that “bristles” Hyde “because it implies she’s brave to put ‘her body’ or ‘that body’ on screen. But she is brave, because she’s putting her body, her gorgeous, beautiful body, on screen to show us that something else is possible.”

Thompson is keenly aware of how subversive it is for a woman her age to dare to be nude, especially in a medium whose foundational grammar is based on the display of women’s bodies. “Impossible bodies,” Thompson notes, “either because they naturally belong to the very young women who are in the films, or [they’re] bodies of old women who do nothing but restrict what they eat and go to the gym.”

Thompson says she has been spared the worst of Hollywood’s obsession with looks; most of the characters she has played aren’t distinguished by their faces or bodies; when she was sent a script describing a character as a beauty, she says, “I’d just not continue to read it.” Still, she hasn’t been immune to the “self-imposed restrictions in order to feel as though I’m not beyond the pale. But at 63, I am already. It’s done. So in a way, there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by trusting in myself and actually trusting in the audience. … I’ve been talking about trusting Bryan and Sophie and Daryl, and of course I do. We all work within a situation of extreme trust. But in order to allow this film out into the world, I had to trust my audience.”

If Leo is an avatar of millennial liberationist ideals, Nancy might be just as valuable as a symbol for body neutrality: the idea of not loving our bodies, or hating them, but simply accepting and respecting them, and prioritizing function over appearance.

“That’s exactly what I wanted for Nancy,” Thompson says. “It’s a neutral gaze. It’s not approval – ‘Oh my God, I look great.’ And it’s not, ‘Oh my God, I look horrible.’ It’s, ‘That’s my body. And I know that it can bring me joy.’

“This is such a great concept, actually, because it’s easier for people to feel neutral about their body than it is for them to go, ‘I love my body.’ That, I think, is really helpful. And it’s something that you can sort of practice on your own. And since I’ve done this movie, I’ve been trying to practice that much, much more. It’s very hard. It’s really hard. But it’s worth the candle.”