It is a widely recognized truth that if someone calls you names in public, you must return the favor and take revenge. It’s true now in the age of Twitter, Instagram and the Metaverseand it was especially true two centuries ago, when public appearances were paramount in establishing one’s social reputation and securing lucrative (and loveless) marriages.
That’s the thrust behind it Mr Malcolm’s listthe last costume drama not too far from Bridgerton that deals with matters of the heart because it conflicts with concerns for social prestige and mobility. But unlike the 1988 version of dangerous relations or recent TV shows like Belgravia and The Gilded Age, this period photo is more silly and humorous than grim and serious. As a result, the film is one of the best comedies of the year, a sharp, scintillating satire that moves quickly and confidently. It’s a lightweight delight, which is hard to do in any genre.
Based on the 2009 novel by Suzanne Allain (who also wrote the screenplay) and the Short film of the same name from 2019† Mr Malcolm’s list tells the friendship of wealthy Julia Thistlewaite (Zaw Ashton) and working-class Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto) from childhood (in a brief opening sequence) to young adulthood. Increasingly desperate for a husband to safeguard her lavish lifestyle, Julia sets her sights on Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), London’s most eligible bachelor who has a list of requirements no woman has met. After an awkward date that leaves him unimpressed and socially embarrassed, Julia hatches a plan: give Mr. Malcolm a taste of his own medicine by making him fall in love with his ideal woman, who will then publicly reject him.
Since no woman ever meets all of Mr. Malcolm can satisfy, Julia decides to create one of her own. With the help of her dumb cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Julia persuades Selina to join the upper class and win Mr. Malcolm’s heart. In swirling makeover montages that remember My beautiful lady and Beautiful womanSelina trades her mundane rags for luxurious riches and not only attracts Mr. Malcolm, but also his dashing friend, Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James).
Misidentified identities are discovered, unlikely alliances (and romances) are forged, and secret plans are hatched and uncovered. There’s even a masquerade ball that everyone throws together in the third act. But saying more wouldn’t necessarily ruin the surprise if Mr Malcolm’s list doesn’t rework this formula as much as it performs so well.
Part of that is due to the confident directing of Emma Holly Jones, who is making her feature film debut and already establishing a distinct style. Lightweight but never frivolous, Mr Malcolm’s list conventionally tells a conventional story, but Jones makes sure it never feels like a grind. She doesn’t waste too much time on obvious plot points and makes sure her characters are built up so that they’re fully rounded people, not pawns on a chessboard.
She is joined by a great cast especially the supporting players who all have their moments to shine. As the two romantic protagonists, Dirisu and Pinto are quite charismatic without breaking the mold too much. mr. Malcolm is clearly a Mr. Darcy surrogate, while Selina is every Jane Austen heroine in one package. The actors can’t do much more than simmer or sulk, depending on the plot fabrication, but that’s okay because they’re not the main draw of the film anyway.
As the slightly vain and slightly dumb Julia, Ashton is a delight and is the standout performer in the rich cast. What could have been a standard villain role is instead the most charming and recognizable character in the entire movie, thanks to Ashton’s poor performance. Naughty but nice when it comes down to it, her Julia is always entertaining, and you often wish she had more screen time to hear more of her sharp comments.
She fits Jackson-Cohen as the feeble-minded and finicky Lord Cassidy. Far from the sweltering fields of The Haunting of Hill House and Chasing Bly Manor for which he is best known, Jackson-Cohen has a ball of a time in this movie as a fly-by Pygmalion who coaxes Selina and tries (and fails) to put Julia in her place. It’s a performance reminiscent of the fops and slack cads that David Niven and Alec Guinness played so well in British Comedies of the 50s and Jackson-Cohen never takes a wrong step.
Other artists also shine. Theo James plays the handsome Captain Ossory with a sly smile, as if he knows how absurdly handsome he is and can’t quite believe it. When the intimidating mother of Mr. Malcolm, make Doña Croll believe in the firm hold she has on her son and society with nothing more than a withering eyebrow. It is an imperious performance in the best sense of the word, without seeming full of it.
With spirited direction and a cast keyed in to the satirical bite of the script, Mr Malcolm’s list is a legitimate successor to Jane Austen’s comic throne. What could have been a dry and perfunctory affair is instead a light-hearted (but never bawdy) romp through the bedrooms and gardens of Regency-era England.
If it evokes comparisons with Emma† Pride and prejudiceor even Bridgerton, Then it is. A movie could be worse than standing next to those works, and it manages to make itself unique in the crowded subgenre of historical movies and TV shows that portray the endlessly absurd play of love and social status.
Mr Malcolm’s list currently plays in select theaters across the country.