A staid, unworldly widow hires a sex worker in a gentle, funny film about female desire and emotional release
big lion (Peaky Blinders‘ Daryl McCormack) is this sex worker, an outrageously charming combination of gentle, intuitive and sexy. “You’re kind of a sex saint,” Nancy tells him. “Are you real?”
For a film about sex, there’s a lot of conversation Good luck to you Leo Grande. Emma Thompson plays Nancy Stokes, a prudish, unworldly widow and retired religion teacher who hires a sex worker to fulfill lifelong desires her late husband didn’t even bother to understand.
Almost the entire film takes place within the boring Norwich hotel room that Nancy has rented, a confinement that lends the ensuing tête-à-têtes a sort of theatrical intimacy (that would actually work quite well on stage).
Nancy starts out wildly nervous and neurotic, frankly concerned that Leo might want to leave, maybe she’s too old for him to dislike her. Leo is the perfect foil for her neuroses and works tirelessly to make her feel safe. He likes his job, he insists; He finds her attractive, he had clients in the eighties.
Nancy admits that she doesn’t even want to try to have an orgasm. “Why do you think you will be disappointed?” he asks. “Because I always have been,” she replies.
By the second session, Nancy is less nervous but still neurotic. As a teacher, she has created a long list of sexual acts to master. “I want a sense of achievement!” Leo stutters. It’s the first time he’s looked worried.
This is a gently funny film that gently digs its characters flaws just for humor without riffling on stereotypes. With comedian Katy Brand as screenwriter and AnimalsSophie Hyde is directing, it’s not the male gaze at all. We sympathize with Nancy without ever finding her pathetic; we laugh at her as at a friend.
Their relationship, which grows with every meeting, is beautifully done. Thompson is so wonderful at subtly transforming that fake housewife energy into something stronger, even daring. Compassionate and considerate, McCormack moves the drama along smoothly and shows genuine interest in his clients’ life stories.
Like Nick Hornby’s state of the nation or Dennis Kelly’s Togetherthe claustrophobic lockdown drama starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, big lion works because the past drives it forward.
The film only really falters in the third act. A narrative needs an obstacle, of course, but this, with Leo’s own mask of perfection slipping, feels a little forced. And I don’t think it’s doing the job it’s supposed to, which is removing the stigma attached to sex work.
It’s trying – Leo is quite adamant that he’s not being taken advantage of – and we believe him. But with the genders reversed, that plot is still dangerously close Pretty Woman. Is sex work okay just because you’re not ashamed of it? The film skirts that question and seems afraid to fully explore it.
Nonetheless, this is a beautifully written look at female desire and confidence, not meant to be an essay on prostitution. Leo doesn’t really teach Nancy about sex, but about how to live without shame.
In one scene towards the end, Thompson stares at her completely naked 63-year-old body in the mirror with such radical curiosity and acceptance that it brought tears to my eyes. Finally, big lion is not only a film about sex, but also about liberation and emotional intimacy, with oneself and with others. As Leo says, “There is no exam. It’s all a dance.”