Greetings again from the darkness. Normally when we see a movie where the focus is almost entirely on two characters conversing while in one room, we expect it to feel like something better served in live theater. But director Sophie Hyde does succeed in keeping it cinematic, despite the dialogue-centric script from writer Katy Brand and a setting that is 95 percent within the confines of a single hotel room. An extraordinary performance from two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson and solid complimentary work from Daryl McCormack keep us interested in the characters.
Nancy Stokes (Ms. Thompson) is a middle-aged woman fidgeting in a hotel room when Leo Grande (Mr. McCormack) knocks on her door and asks if he may kiss her on the cheek. It turns out Nancy is two years a widow and has hired sex worker Leo to assist with knocking a few things off her to-do list of unfulfilled intimate activities. See, Nancy has only ever had sex with her husband, and now she longs to feel young and excited again, and hopes this pay-for-it adventure will scratch that itch in just the right way.
Their initial meeting is fascinating to watch. Nancy, a former religious studies teacher, is a planner, list-maker, and steps-follower. She’s also filled with nervous energy and a bit embarrassed by the situation … clearly wanting to move forward, while trying to convince herself she doesn’t really want it. On the other side of this would-be tryst, Leo is the master of calm demeanor and smooth talk. He’s a professional who takes pride in the “service” he provides, and he recognizes what to say (and when) to try and put Nancy at ease. It’s clearly not his first rodeo. In this initial meeting, Nancy and Leo literally dance around the sex, and instead focus on conversation. She wants to know all about him, while he just wants to the job he was hired for.
Subsequent meetings (jobs, hook-ups, trysts?) between the two occur in the same room at The Duffield Hotel, and Nancy continues to poke the personal boundaries that Leo tries to uphold. As happens with human nature, barriers begin to break down. This intrusion changes the dynamics and causes quite the mood shift as personal lives and relationships open wounds that are probably best left to a situation where one hasn’t contracted for the sexual services of another.
Most of the dialogue seems believable and true to the characters, and Ms. Thompson does much of the heavy lifting. The only exceptions to this would be Nancy offering to talk to Leo’s mother (What the heck? That’s ridiculous even for a former teacher.), and when Nancy recalls asking her class about the impact of pay-for-sex … a discussion that seems a bit too on point for the film. A truly annoying song plays over the opening credits, but later an Alabama Shakes song plays with perfect timing. When Nancy’s real name is revealed, that too produces a cringe, but mostly we are reminded that the perfect fantasy sex partner will always be just that – a fantasy. Ms. Hyde’s film leaves us with this thought … will “empirically sexy” become the go-to compliment for romantic partners?
Opens in theaters on June 17, 2022