Review: Mr. Malcolm’s List Aims for Regency-Era Romance, Lands on Something More Polite
Based on her 2009 novel of the same name, Suzanne Allain adapts Mr. Malcolm's List for the big screen in the first truly original Austen-ite period romantic comedy in ages. Directed by Emma Holly Jones (making her feature filmmaking debut after helming a short version of the film in 2019), the movie is set in England's Regency period (the early decades of the 19th century) and exudes all the prim and proper societal Ps and Qs any fan of Jane Austen knows well. The waistlines are empire, the bonnets are ribboned and the social calls are strictly chaperoned or else risk becoming fodder for scandalous rumours...I mean, rumors. In a beautifully refreshing take on color-blind casting, the ensemble is as brown and black as it is lily white; and the actors making up the ensemble are all a treat to spend two hours with. That the story they're telling ultimately feels stilted and slow to unfold (particularly given how predictable this feel-good fairy tale ends up being) is not at all their fault.
Sope Dìrísù is the titular Mr. Malcolm, a man with everything going for him in high society. He's wealthy, handsome and most importantly, single. Determined not to marry someone only interested in his material resources, Mr. Malcolm finds himself doing the one thing polite society doesn't have any interest in entertaining at the time: casually dating prospective mates. After spending a less-than-enjoyable night at the opera with one Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), a woman of equal societal status and ego, he feels his prospects are few and she feels unjustly rejected. It's Julia's cousin, Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who discovers that Malcolm keeps a checklist for potential matches, wishing for them to live up to his expectations in order to be taken seriously. Cassidy shares this bit of tea with Julia, who contrives a plan to get back at Mr. Malcolm for the social snub he handed her that night at the opera. To do so, she calls on a friend from her school days, Selina (Freida Pinto), inviting her to come stay in London and play the part of Mr. Malcolm's dream woman.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a straightforward plot, one that only ever leans to the right or left without really doing much twisting and turning. Not every movie needs to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma that unfolds like an origami swan coming undone, and the threads developed in Mr. Malcolm's List are about as predictable as snow in winter and crooked politicians in Chicago. As Selina becomes the woman Malcolm purports to want based on his list, of course he falls more and more in love with her; could that be her genuinely falling for this charming, handsome young man she's spending so much time with? Prior to her visit to the city, Selina had been living with an elderly woman, keeping her company in her final years; now, that woman's nephew, Captain Ossory (Theo James), has arrived in London to thank Selina for her kindness and, as his aunt's last wish, make a match with her. But wait, is that a spark one detects between Ossory and, of all people, Julia Thistlewait?
The world of this romance novel-turned-film is one where real tragedy never bursts anyone's bubble and all's well that ends well, even if there are a few hilarious (but harmless) hijinks along the way. As the lives of these beautiful young single people become more and more intertwined, there are miscommunications and double-crosses and second-guessing and all the sort of mild drama that arises in the midst of a will-they, won't-they kind of narrative. Each of the actors carries their respective roles with an inherent grace that is truly a pleasure to witness. Pinto is mild-mannered, well-meaning yet unwilling to be anyone's chump. Ashton creates a woman so insecure about her own worth that she's on the defensive so frequently she doesn't even realize how far she's gone off the edge. The driving force of the film, however, is Dìrísù, who's mainly been a television actor until booking a series of films finally seeing release in the last year (Silent Night, Mothering Sunday). No one has oozed more charm, sex appeal or confidence with such ease since Colin Firth took on Austen's Mr. Darcy decades ago, and his inhabiting this playboy-means-well role makes it not hard work at all to understand why he has every woman of a certain age and status fawning over him.
Jones shows promise as a new filmmaker, immersing us in a world of elegance and fine details, from well-appointed costumes to decadent sitting rooms and gardens. It's any Austen fan's dream, if not particularly original in its approach (I'm thinking of 2010's vibrant Emma mini-series). Where her filmmaking comes up short is in its pacing, as what should be sharp, tense or otherwise dramatic moments lose their momentum by not trusting the audience enough to keep up with the proceedings. If the scene setting up Julia's misbegotten plan had dragged on any longer, I would've thought they were going to tell us how it all turns out, too. What's worse, the film's most romantic scenes, as lovers finally see the error of their ways and go running into each other's arms (oh, don't say you didn't see it coming), all I wanted was the rush of a wind in their hair, chests heaving and brows sweaty with anticipation. Instead, the proceedings err too much on the side of politeness, making what could be a winning romantic comedy not much more than a passable Austen facsimile.
Mr. Malcolm's Lists now playing in theaters.
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