“Mr. Malcolm’s List” has a wonderfully light charm. It’s a Regency novel set in London in 1818 where someone is being fooled at every turn in the film. The deceptions and symmetries are standard, but this is the kind of movie that rises or falls or the actors can carry up the duplicity—and the innocence—and the actors here are amazing: sharp, stylish, emotionally alive, never knowing more than when they’re being cheated.
Directed with a seductive blend of bathing and sensuality of the highest order by Emma Holly Jones, the film is based on a novel by Suzanne Allain (who wrote the screenplay), which was published in 2020 and designed as a playful riff on Jane Austen. . † Still, it’s funny how big screen adaptations can work in the ‘Masterpiece Theater’ genre. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is Jane Austen Lite, but if you look at the 2005 movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” for example, you might call it “Pride and Prejudice” Lite. These movies have, almost necessarily (i.e. a running time two o’clock), the tendency to strip the novels down to their elegant bones, and “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” in its imitation-classic way, is every bit as tricky and distracting entertainment as Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” or the recent version of ‘Emma’ It’s a pleasantly smart dessert, which is what so many of these movies are, but in this case without the tony literary ancestry.
It’s also a love story from a period where three of the four main characters are played by actors of color, and that’s a breakthrough that’s part of the film’s freshness. It is of course not unprecedented. In 2011’s “Wuthering Heights,” James Howson starred as Heathcliff, and “Bridgerton” was a breakthrough casting historical romantic drama. But “Mr. Malcolm’s List’ still feels like it’s pushing a door that has only recently been unlocked, and with a sort of fervor that hints at a costume drama future with a much more adventurous spirit.
The title character, Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), is a highly eligible bachelor, due to his good looks and inherited wealth. But the fact that he is the target of every woman he meets is a rather heavy privilege. It means that he constantly wards off fortune seekers. In an early scene, we see his somber date at the opera with Julia Thistlewaite (Zaw Ashton), whose lack of worldly sophistication (she wonders why so many operas are foreign) is an immediate deal breaker for him. At one point, he yawns in her company, resulting in a minor scandal of gossip: a caricature, scattered across town, showing a quirky-looking Julia as Mr. Malcolm says, “Next!” If that cartoon caption strikes you as an anachronism of Ariana Grande, that works as part of the film’s indifference.
Mr. Malcolm, it seems, has a checklist of 10 attributes that every prospect of his should meet before considering marrying her. Julia failed #4 (“Convers in a sensible way”). But otherwise she finds the whole idea of such a list repulsive. So she begins to take revenge by summoning Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), her childhood friend from the countryside (they went to girls’ school together), to visit her in London, where she will carefully set Selina as Mr. Malcolm’s perfect size. Then, when he proposes, Selina will turn the tables by revealing that she has a list of her own, whose qualifications he has not met.
The idea of the list is easy to mock, even as a plot point, until you consider how unfamiliar it really is and how relevant to our own era of online courtship. Who nowadays? not do you have a list? British-Nigerian actor Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù uses Malcolm’s list to define a kind of clumsily wrong idealism in a depiction of disarming sincerity. He’s looking for a partner who doesn’t just want his money; who has spirit and character and will be a companion; whom he can love. Dìrísù gives Malcolm a gravity that makes him sexy; he really believes in his list. But reducing romance to an emotional mathematical formula is, of course, a strategy doomed to fail.
Especially considering that Selina more or less fulfills every item on the list without trying. You feel the chemistry of the pair, which in a costume drama like this is an ironically civilized thing: a mixture of temperaments, of hearts and minds rhyming. But life has a way of undermining the best-laid plans, like when Selina’s niece, the chatterbox Gertie (Ashley Park), shows up with the potential to beat Malcolm’s list requirement about having respectable relatives.
There are films that artfully deconstruct 19th-century notions of marriage, money, property, and whether love for men. and women, is a privilege or a divine right. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” takes a look at those themes without rocking the boat. It’s a very traditional romance, which pairs its couples exactly the same way. Julia, setting the wheels in motion, responds to her humiliation by her inner bully She is hatefully obsessed and doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, but the trick to Zawe Ashton’s performance is that she plays Julia’s haughtiness as a burst of misguided passion. Theo James, as the brash soldier who falls for her, seems ready for the struggle, whatever it will have to be.
There’s a grand ball, a dance scene that speaks louder than words, pulling out a carpet under the pretense of chivalry, a garden reconciliation set up by the last person we expected, and an acknowledgment that all of Mr. Malcolm’s list isn’t that it comes from a bad place. It’s that when you make love shopping, you also have control over what you seek and therefore what you find.