“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is sure to be comfort food for fans of light and breezy period rom-coms. It also provides a happy escape for moviegoers who might be seeking refuge from the wave of tent-pole summer blockbusters that are currently in full force. And while a Jane Austen-ish feature film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (normally myself included), I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this quaint and witty regency-era romance.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Emma Holly Jones, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” boasts a fresh multiracial cast yet still tells a story that very much feels a part of its British romantic comedy sub-genre. Comparisons to the popular Netflix series “Bridgerton” seem inevitable. But far more visible is the loose inspiration of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. Either way, Jones adds enough of her own special sauce to give her film its own flavor, despite some fairly obvious final act predictability.
The story is written by Suzanne Allain and based on her own 2009 self-published novel of the same name. It’s set in the prim and proper 19th century London where the marriage game is as competitive as any sport we obsess over today. The dashing Mr. Jeremiah Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) is a most eligible bachelor who’s considered the biggest catch of the 1818 “season”. Despite lacking a proper title of his own, his maternal aunt left him a sizable fortune and a large country estate. That was more than enough to catch the attention of every young aristocratic maiden in the region.
One such bride-in-waiting is the wealthy and entitled Julia Thistlewaite (a pitch-perfect Zawe Ashton). She’s a bit of a snoot and sees Mr. Malcolm as a means of cementing her position in society’s upper-crust. But Jeremiah isn’t a shallow man. He’s looking for a bride with qualities beyond high standing and a flirty smile (gold-diggers and social climbers need not apply). Rather, Jeremiah is the kind and gentlemanly sort who has a literal list of qualifications for the woman he hopes to spend the rest of his life with.
So it’s no surprise that the haughty Julia’s date with the highly sought-after Mr. Malcolm flops. And after he doesn’t extend a second call, her rejection becomes the talk of the public gossip circles. Adding to her humiliation, Julia learns of Mr. Malcolm’s notorious list. So she enlists the help of her push-over cousin, Lord Cassidy (a slyly comical Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and the two immediately hatch a plan for revenge.
Julia calls on her childhood friend, Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), a sweet rural girl and the daughter of a country vicar. The two first met as classmates at Mrs. Finch’s Ladies Academy where they made a pact to always have each other’s back. When Selina arrives at Julia’s swanky London manor she reluctantly agrees to go along with her friend’s scheme. It goes something like this: Train Selina to check off all the boxes on Mr. Malcolm’s list, win his heart, and then turn around and give him a taste of his own medicine.
You can probably guess what happens next. Selina sees a much different side of Mr. Malcolm. “I’m just not sure he’s the villain you paint him to be“, she contends. But Julia will have none of it and is determined that Mr. Malcolm gets his comeuppance. “I want him humiliated” she exclaims, “just like I was.” Selina and Jeremiah inevitably grow closer while Julia’s poorly veiled jealousy and resentment festers.
While that may sound like a pretty toxic recipe, Jones keeps things from souring by maintaining a slightly whimsical tone. It never goes the full-on comedy route of something like Whit Stillman’s deliciously vicious and sharp-tongued “Love and Friendship”. But there is plenty of baked-in humor, much of it from the stellar supporting cast that includes Jackson-Cohen, Ashley Park, Theo James and the hilariously expressive Divian Ladwa.
My lone gripe is with the film’s conventional and by-the-book final act. It plays it so aggressively safe. But in its defense, there’s practically an expectation for how these stories should end. It’s a formula deeply ingrained in these types of movies. So criticizing it almost sounds frivolous. And besides, there’s still plenty to appreciate in this surprisingly enjoyable period piece. “Mr. Malcom’s List” opens today in theaters.