Film & Television

‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ is Frothy Fun if Forgettable

Gentle reader, if you are a period drama enthusiast, and you think Bridgerton has a little too much s-e-x, and Jane Austen is a little too w-h-i-t-e, you could do worse than spend a summer’s afternoon at your local multiplex. Stroll purposefully by auditorium after auditorium showing Thor: Love and Thunder and Minions: The Rise of Gru, and you’ll find a comedy of manners that is an utterly charming (albeit equally forgettable) way to spend the next two hours.

Mr. Malcolm’s List, deftly directed by Emma Holly Jones and written by Suzanne Allain based on her own novel, is frothy fun. Set in Regency-era England (as such stories often are), it’s a tale of pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility, love and friendship, and more than a bit of persuasion. And, if those descriptors sound familiar. . .well, suffice it to say that the spirit of Jane Austen is likely rejoicing that her life’s work is still so revered that homages never cease even two hundred years after her death. Either that, or she’s rolling in her grave.

The story is clever in its symmetry and simplicity. Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) is the ton’s most eligible but emotionally elusive bachelor. Although he is only an “Honorable” (being a second son, he holds no title), a wealthy but childless aunt has left him her considerable estate. He is worth a staggering 20,000 pounds a year (for reference, that’s double Mr. Darcy and quadruple Mr. Bingley) and very much in need of a wife. However, not just any wife will do. The future Mrs. Malcolm must check off a number of boxes — ten to be exact. The desirable Mr. Malcolm has made a list.

In a single disastrous evening at the opera, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) flunks Malcolm’s test. She ponders aloud, “Why are so many operas foreign?” She thinks that the Corn Laws (nineteenth century tariffs on imported grains) are dietary guidelines. And, perhaps worst of all, she continually hits Malcolm in the face with her silly feathered headdress. Malcolm casts her aside, which would be embarrassing enough for Julia (this is her third or fourth London season with no husband in tow). But, a local newspaper publishes a cartoon of the disdainful Malcolm spurning a lovesick Julia and demanding “Next!”

In 1818 London, published gossip wields unfathomable power (don’t take my word for it; just ask Lady Whistledown). Julia is humiliated and cannot rest until she exacts revenge.

Enter Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto). Julia invites her schoolgirl chum to come to the city, waiting until Selina’s arrival to fill her in on the master plan. With the help of hapless cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has seen Malcolm’s infamous list, Julia will teach Selina point-by-point to be the perfect match. Once Sellina has won the gentleman’s heart, she’ll admit that she has her own list and send him packing. It’s perfect storybook revenge. Where he judged too much, he will be judged. Where he was too quick to reject, he will be rejected. Selina, who is gentle and wise beyond her meager means as a country clergyman’s daughter, has reservations but is too fond of her friend not to join the scheme.

Selina and Malcolm meet cute one evening in an orangery. They match wits and are challenged and enchanted by each other before a formal introduction is even made. Julia watches with glee as her ex enthusiastically courts Selina. Meanwhile, complications are introduced in the forms of a dashing retiring officer (Theo James, whom you may remember as Downton’s doomed Mr. Pamuk), multiple “marriage-minded mamas” (Naoko Mori, Dawn Bradfield, Doña Croll), amorous servants (Divian Ladwa, Sianad Gregory), and a tittering, twice-married cousin (Ashley Park).

Shot in Ireland, Mr. Malcolm’s List also includes the breathtaking costumes, lavish settings, sumptuous ballrooms, handsome horses, upholstered carriages, jewels, tea, and pastry we’ve become accustomed to via Bridgerton, Sanditon, and their ilk. There are balls, hunting parties, promenades, gallery tours, visits from the modiste, multicourse meals, and a climactic masquerade. The main characters circle each other, fall in and out of love, and end up in exactly the right place with exactly the right person when all is said and done.

True Janeites have an insatiable appetite for new adaptations. And there’s much to enjoy here. Still, while the story might believably have come from a contemporary of Austen’s, it lacks her social and political commentary and her sharp wit. Like Bridgerton, Mr. Malcolm’s List creates and celebrates a reimagined and more diverse version of British history. However, in the Netflix series, an explanation is offered up; the King fell in love with a woman of color and so others of her race were elevated in society. In Mr. Malcolm’s List, no such mythology is introduced. London society includes nobility of multiple races — in fact, in more than one instance, nuclear families include members of multiple races. It’s as though Jones and Allain are telling us, “They are who they are. Deal with it.” And, with such a delightful cast, we happily do.

The only actors I was familiar with prior to watching Mr. Malcolm’s List were Pinto, Park, and James. They are endearing here whether playing it straight or silly, immensely attractive and likable. In the titular role, Nigerian-British Dìrísù balances a true heart with a haughty exterior, and in his final grand declaration of love (given the genre, that’s really not a spoiler), his eloquence is thoughtful and measured and, of course, eventually rewarded. Jackson-Cohen is appropriately goofy as Julia’s reluctant accomplice. And Ashton, with her non-stop and not especially lucid banter and a perpetual gleam in her eye, is hilarious. I would have happily predicted great things for her, but a quick search on IMDB proves that my good wishes are unnecessary. She has already appeared onstage in the West End and on Broadway, been featured in multiple television series, and will embody the new character Oona in the upcoming fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The bottom line, there is really nothing wrong with Mr. Malcolm’s List. With its enthusiastic young cast, yummy art direction, and satisfying, if one-thousand-percent predictable, plotline, Mr. Malcolm’s List may be exactly the right way to spend some time this summer. Selena Dalton probably won’t stay with you as long as Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood. And, as proud as he may be, Mr. Malcolm is no Mr. Darcy. In fact, when the frills and fun are over, chances are you’ll forget him and that loathsome list pretty quickly.

That said, if your perspective on period romance is one of “more is more,” go ahead. 

Put it on your list.

Mr. Malcolm’s List is now playing in theatres.

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