Emma Thompson plays Nancy, retired and recently widowed, vividly unhappy, and at the limit of her ability to endure her own unhappiness. Completely breaking her strict patterns, she hires a sex worker named Leo (Daryl McCormack), whom she somehow found on the internet. She rents a posh hotel room, where he joins her. The film is broken up into four separate “meetings,” and each meeting has its own flow and rhythm, with jagged edges, reprieves and pauses, beautiful and funny moments, as these strangers get to know each other in what is a transparently transactional relationship. Things don’t happen in a linear way: emotions rarely do. Sex sure doesn’t, especially not with someone as terrified as Nancy.
Leo is kind and open, funny and confident. Nancy is a mess, whip-sawing from self-hatred to over-sharing to near-hysteria to business-like statements, flung at him like a weapon. There are times when a totally inappropriate motherly vibe comes out of her, and she worries he’s being trafficked, or that he feels demeaned by being there, or grossed out by her body. Leo meets her wherever she’s at. It’s part of his job, and he’s very good at his job. Leo does not judge. Nancy tells him straight out that she’s never had an orgasm, nor does she expect to, so he shouldn’t even try. Leo doesn’t push it, or reassure her that he’ll make her come, no problem. Instead, he asks her questions about her experiences. She’s probably never said any of it out loud before, and the words tumble out of her mouth.
What happens between them is, of course, sexual, but so much else is going on. Fascinating philosophical territory opens up, where things like intimacy, aging, and the importance of sexual pleasure, whether it’s with yourself or with someone else, enter the room. There is a moment early on where Thompson, always amazing but at her best here, begins to weep. For her, sex is associated with disappointment and loss. She isn’t going to untangle that in a two-hour session. It’s not like Leo touches her and she melts instantly. Nancy thought she hired Leo to have some sex. She didn’t realize the focus would be on pleasure, whatever form that pleasure takes. She has no idea what pleasure even means.