Emma Thompson’s new movie captures the truth about sex

Publisher’s note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer living in western Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — If you were to write down a list of buzzwords to infuriate the cult of misogyny online, you’d probably find them all in the lovely “Good Luck to You, Big Leo.” The new Hulu movie stars Emma Thompson as Nancy, a widowed, retired school teacher who hires a much younger sex worker (Daryl McCormack) for a series of encounters in a hotel room. She seeks to sleep with someone other than her husband, who was her only partner; more importantly, she is interested in enjoying sex for the first time in her life.

Drama written and directed by a woman is a wonder and a rarity. Her gentle honesty about the broad spectrum of human sexuality stands in direct opposition to much of what we see portrayed in movies as “normal” sex, particularly the experience of women. And the film’s attitude toward sex work, showing how this profession could actually offer a valuable service to humanity, is downright radical for Hollywood. That director Sophie Hyde, Thompson, and newcomer McCormack deliver all of this with such a light touch is nothing short of masterful.

In “Big Leo” Emma Thompson plays one of her best roles. Thompson is a two-time Oscar winner, so that’s saying a lot. The 63-year-old has also long been one of the leading voices in the open debate on sexism in the entertainment industry. Several years ago, she called the oft-cited notion that things were getting better for actresses false: “I don’t think there’s any measurable improvement and I think for women the question of how they’re supposed to look is worse than what it was even when I was young… So, no, I’m not impressed, not at all. I think it’s still completely s**t, actually.”

The message in most female roles—that women must constantly watch the aesthetics of their bodies, be squeamish about sex, and embarrassed or self-conscious about their own desires—is cleverly integrated into Nancy’s dialogue. Thompson plays comic self-doubt like no one else, but here, with deep undertones of sadness, she embodies Nancy’s internal war between wanting to broaden (or, indeed, invent) her sexual horizons and her decades-old belief that wanting doing so is embarrassing and, at his age, humiliating for everyone involved.

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in the movie GOOD LUCK TO YOU, BIG LEO.

I’ve been writing about movies for quite some time and one aspect that has remained maddeningly constant, with a handful of exceptions, is the utterly stupid portrayal of women’s sexual pleasure. It’s something I’ve learned not to comment on whenever I write about a movie with straight sex, so I don’t become a broken record (and a middle-aged woman), but can we talk about that? For just a minute?

9.5 times out of 10, when a man and a woman have sex in movies, it’s brief, it’s missionary (ie he’s on top), and they climax together, beautifully. This show is, in fact, very similar to the sex that Nancy tragicomicly describes to Leo, without the artistry and mutual enjoyment: as she remembers it, her husband would climb on top of her, thrust, orgasm, turn around and sleep.

She, meanwhile, has never had an orgasm, ever, she tells Leo. Which puts her solidly next to most women, according to a study, who don’t have orgasms without clitoral stimulation. Yet somehow it seems that most of the portrayal of sex between men and women in mainstream movies (apart from a good chunk of adult movies) presents women’s orgasms as something that magically happens in the most cinematic moment.

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in the movie GOOD LUCK TO YOU, BIG LEO.

Forget finding women over 60 whose wishes are discussed and acted out on screen, or sex work portrayed in ways that aren’t sensational or damning. The only movie I can remember that comes close to “Big Leo’s” level of respect for sex work as a human profession is a decade old: “The Sessions” by Ben Lewin, which featured Helen Hunt as a sexual surrogate working with a profoundly disabled man (John Hawkes) who is interested in experiencing sexual intimacy for the first time.

“Big Leo” doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of sex work, particularly for women, but its heroic and unapologetic portrayal of Leo rejects the still prevalent idea that anyone who enters the field must be deeply damaged. What write a reproductive justice advocate, “the idea of ​​buying intimacy and paying for services can be reassuring for many people who need human connection, friendship, and emotional support. Some people may have sexual fantasies and preferences that can be fulfilled by the services of a or a sex worker.

In one of the film’s most moving monologues — and it really does feel like a play — Leo describes to Nancy some of his regular customers, including one who just wants to hold hands and watch TV and another who has a physical handicap and likes to talk dirty and take baths together. Which, Leo adds, she finds exciting (an approval that echoes through her body, as we see Nancy raise her eyebrows with a glance at her groin).

In a recent vogue essay, Thompson discussed why this aspect of the film appealed to her so much: “Sexual assistance: why isn’t it in the NHS? Sex is free, natural, normal, lovely, good for us, and, as Leo says in the movie, inaccessible to some for all sorts of perfectly valid reasons. It’s a public health issue.” McCormack’s character adds, “You understand that you can make people feel better, you can improve their lives, and sometimes you can even free them from suffering. It teaches Nancy, in short, about the possible sanctity of sex work.”

It speaks to a message at odds with our current political moment, where women’s bodily autonomy and power are under siege.

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Thompson said: “It’s not a romantic story, and that’s what I think is radical.” In fact, a plot about an older woman who takes her sex life into her own hands and doesn’t need to add sentimentality defies romance as we know the genre.

But I would say “Big Leo” is a romance in a way we’re not used to thinking of it: one between Nancy and her own body. Thompson brazenly strips naked at one point, no faded lights, no flattering poses, telling Colbert that, in doing so, he had “kind of taken a leap of faith and put my faith in the audience.”

I hope they prove themselves worthy of it, and of her.

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