A retired, recently widowed and sexually completely unfulfilled former religious studies teacher hires herself a dishy young male escort in a last-ditch effort to reach the moment of supreme between-the-sheets satisfaction that has always been denied her…
It really, really doesn’t sound the most enticing prospect for a film ever made. And yet in the hands of Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack, it becomes something sweet, tender and rather special – an exploration of vulnerabilities very sensitively delivered.
Much has been made of Thompson’s courage in taking on the role. Whether courage is necessarily the right word, she’s certainly in no-holds-barred territory. As Nancy Stokes – a pseudonym just for the purpose – she books a session with sex worker Leo Grande (McCormack) – again a pseudonym just for the purpose – in an anonymous hotel room where her resolve quickly deserts her. She’s painfully aware of all her frustrations, of all that she feels she has missed out on through her 31 years with her sexually-selfish and regimented late husband. She’s also aware just how dull she finds her own children. Faced with her own emptiness, with a faint awareness of just what her life might have been, she books Leo – only to falter, wittering on instead about all her doubts and anxieties, to which he responds with endless kindness, endless encouragement, a complete lack of judgement and total indulgence.
So much so that you start to suspect he’s playing an act, which of course he is. He is Leo Grande, his own invention and determined that nothing about his real self is going to colour the pleasures that Nancy has paid for and hasn’t quite yet redeemed. The tension becomes whether her chat and insecurities will break through – which is when it becomes a rather more interesting film. When she does get beneath Rio Grande, she potentially wrecks the very basis of the very unreal relationship she imagines is emerging.
Virtually the whole film is in the one room over a number of “sessions”, and it’s the compassion of the two leads (you barely see anyone else) who lift it in a strong and poignant second half which manages to say a huge amount about the expectations we make of others and the limitations we place on ourselves. There is a gorgeous cameo from a rather surprised waitress at the end – a final flourish in a film which is ultimately wise and kind, understanding and generous. But maybe best of all, it’s a film utterly reliant on the skills of its leads. No special effects, no computer generations, no superheroes. In fact, quite the contrary – simply a portrayal of two rather flawed, damaged people trying to make their lives richer and more fulfilling. Alongside the humanity, there is great tenderness in this film – and surely that’s the best kind of film. Thompson can be just a little bit Marmite but you can’t help but be touched by by this woman trying to reach out from her sadness and loneliness.