Mr. Malcolm's List
This gorgeous period romance puts a new twist on familiar territory as a multicultural cast engage in a pre-Victorian battle of the sexes.
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I was quite taken with “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” which feels like an updating of a classic Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel but with a gorgeous multicultural cast instead of a bunch of pasty Brits. The novel by Suzanne Allain is actually modern, and she also penned the screenplay, which was previously turned into a short film, like this one directed by Emma Holly Jones, her first feature.
What an audacious debut.
This is one of those movies concerned with debutantes and gentlemen, courting and match-making, chance meetings and contrived letters. The womenfolk are obsessed with getting married or helping someone else get married, except for the leading lady who proudly disdains such things, until such time as she gets bitten by the love bug herself. The men have to be prodded into finding their feelings, but there will be bent knees and protestations of undying love, for certain. Everyone wears clothes that look smashing and we suspect are insanely uncomfortable.
This film is quite predictable. That is not an insult. Rather, because we know where the story must end up we delight in the journey getting there rather than guessing at the destination.
The titular character is Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a wealthy young bachelor who is known by London society to be searching for a bride. He’s extremely handsome, courtly and has 20,000 a year, so he’s very much in demand by the upper-crust ladies.
(It’s interesting that in these period British stories, wealth is always described as income, whereas nowadays we talk about how big a pile someone has. And they are never so crass as to include the word “pounds” after the figure.)
As the story opens in 1818 — which I had originally written as being Victorian, but self-correct to call it the Regency Era — Miss Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) is Mr. Malcolm’s latest lady companion. She is lovely, quick-witted and from an excellent family. Alas, she tries to fake her way through answering a political question he had put to her during the opera, thus failing an important item on his list.
The list is just what it sounds like: Mr. Malcolm keeps in his pocket a written list of qualifications for a bride. Miss Thistlewaite runs afoul of the item on being an astute conversationalist, is quickly dumped — defined in this era as declining to call upon her again — and is mortified to be featured in a cartoon caricature spread across the newspapers as his latest romantic victim. So, she plots revenge.
She recruits her old schoolmate Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), the daughter of a humble country vicar, to come stay with her and pretend to be the perfect candidate for wife. She is grudgingly assisted in this by her cousin, Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a well-meaning but foppish fellow and friend to Mr. Malcolm.
The idea is that upon securing a marriage proposal, Selina will present Malcolm with her own list for a husband, returning the humiliation.
I am giving nothing away by stating that soon after the ruse is commenced, Selina and Mr. Malcolm genuinely fall for each other. From this point on you could write the rest of the movie yourself, right down to the inevitable revealing of the trick, hurt feelings all around, estrangement followed by inevitable reconciliation.
Also figuring in is Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James), another friend of both Malcolm’s and Cassidy’s, who has recently given up his military career to engage in his own matrimonial pursuits. Charismatic in an acerbic sort of way, he shows up first as a rival with Malcolm for Selina’s attention, though I think you can guess how he ultimately figures into this love quadrangle.
We’ve seen this sort of story play out many times before — so why is this iteration so enchanting?
Part of it has to do with having a mostly Black and brown actors in the lead roles. With an Indian leading actress, a Nigerian-descended lead actor and various other ethnicity spread about, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” creates a fantasy version of 19th century England where classicism very much still exists, but racism is banished or at least pushed to the far edge of societal ills.
Some will call this a “woke” reduction of a Dickensian story. But what is art for if it is not make, re-make and reimagine what came before into what we might wish it to be?
The performances by Pinto and Dirisu are both compelling, illustrating strong-willed characters who are products of their time but brave enough to step outside the confined roles drawn for them. Selina is modest but gutsy, unafraid to show off her intelligence and opinions. Malcolm, though certainly a tad on the haughty side, has enough self-awareness to eventually see how his actions toward Julia and other women were not so harmless as he thought.
“You learn the rules, you follow the rules. If there is a moment where there is no rule, you make a rule and follow that,” he says, which is as good a summation I’ve heard of what it means to fit in.
Ashton is also terrific as Julia, and manages to come across as not stone-hearted despite her twisted scheme. As the 1818 equivalent of an old maid, we regard her pride and prejudice as products of her privilege, not inherent faults.
The gestation of this project is novel itself. Allain self-published her book in 2009 and, unasked, turned it into a screenplay. It made it onto the Black List of the best unproduced scripts, Jones bought the rights herself and turned it into the 2019 short film, which led to the book being “officially” published the next year, and now this movie. Just a reminder to fledgling writer/director/artists that you don’t need to wait on a studio waving their magic wand at you to start creating.
Beautifully shot by Tony Miller with an elegant musical score by Amelia Warner, “Mr. Malcom’s List” has outstanding production values, from the colorful period clothing to the impressive building exteriors and backdrops. Merchant Ivory couldn’t have done it better.
An authentically classic story with a puckish modern sensibility, this movie is like a fine waltz. We know well how it goes — 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3 — but it’s the varied shadings and rhythms that lend it life.