It is a truth universally acknowledged that if someone disses you in public, you must return the favor and exact revenge. It’s true now in the age of Twitter, Instagram, and the Metaverse, and 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 Mr. Malcolm’s List, the latest costume drama not too far removed from Bridgerton that is concerned with affairs of the heart as it conflicts with concerns for social prestige and mobility. Yet unlike the 1988 version of Dangerous Liaisons or recent TV shows such as Belgravia and The Gilded Age, this period picture is more silly and humorous than grim and serious. As a result, the film is one of the year’s best comedies, a sharp, bubbly satire that moves swiftly and confidently. It’s a lightweight pleasure, which is a tough thing to pull off in any genre.
Pretty Woman meets Bridgerton
Based on the 2009 novel by Suzanne Allain (who also wrote the screenplay) and the 2019 short film of the same name, Mr. Malcolm’s List chronicles the friendship of rich Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) and working-class Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto) from childhood (in a brief opening scene) to young adulthood. Increasingly desperate for a husband to secure her lavish lifestyle, Julia sets her sights on Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), London’s most eligible bachelor who has a list of requirements that no woman has satisfied. After an awkward date that leaves him unimpressed and her socially embarrassed, Julia sets out on 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 spurn him.
Since no woman could possibly embody all of Mr. Malcolm’s demands, Julia decides to create one herself. With the aid of her foppish cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Julia persuades Selina to become a member of the upper class and capture Mr. Malcolm’s heart. In whirlwind makeover montages that recall My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman, Selina trades her humdrum rags for luxurious riches and attracts not only Mr. Malcolm, but also his dashing friend, Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James).
Mistaken identities are uncovered, unlikely alliances (and romances) are forged, and secret plans are hatched and discovered. There’s even a masquerade ball that throws everyone together in the third act. Yet to say more wouldn’t necessarily ruin the surprise as Mr. Malcolm’s List doesn’t dramatically re-work this formula as much as it executes it so well.
A sure hand
Part of that is due to the assured direction by Emma Holly Jones, making her feature film debut and already establishing a clear style. Lightweight but never frivolous, Mr. Malcolm’s List tells a conventional story conventionally, but Jones makes sure that it never feels like it’s a drag. She doesn’t waste too much time on obvious plot points and takes care to build up her characters so they are fully rounded people, not pawns on a chess board.
She’s aided by a terrific cast, particularly the supporting players who all have their moments to shine. As the two romantic leads, Dirisu and Pinto are suitably charismatic without breaking too much of the mold. Mr. Malcolm is clearly a Mr. Darcy surrogate, while Selina is every Jane Austen heroine rolled into one package. The actors can’t do much beyond simmer or sulk, depending on the contrivances of the plot, but that’s OK since they aren’t the main appeal of the movie anyway.
The real standouts
As the somewhat vain and slightly stupid Julia, Ashton is a delight and is the standout performer in the rich cast. What could’ve been a stock villain role is instead the most charming and relatable character of the entire film, and that’s due to Ashton’s wicked performance. Naughty but nice when it counts, her Julia is always entertaining, and you often wish she’d have more screen time to hear more of her cutting putdowns.
Matching her is Jackson-Cohen as the weak-minded and fussy Lord Cassidy. Far removed from the brooding plots of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor for which he is best known, Jackson-Cohen has a ball of a time in this film as a fly-by Pygmalion making over Selina and trying (and failing) to put Julia in her place. It’s a performance that invokes the fops and weak-kneed cads that David Niven and Alec Guinness played so well in British comedies of the 1950s and Jackson-Cohen never takes a wrong step.
Other performers shine, too. Theo James plays the hunky Captain Ossory with a sly smile, as if he knows how absurdly good-looking he is and can’t quite believe it. As Mr. Malcolm’s intimidating mother, Doña Croll makes you believe the firm hold she has over her son and society with nothing more than a withering eyebrow. It’s an imperious performance in the best sense of the word, without seeming full of it.
A complete package
With snappy direction and a cast keyed into the script’s satiric bite, Mr. Malcolm’s List is a legitimate successor to Jane Austen’s comedic throne. What could’ve been a dry and perfunctory affair is instead a breezy (but never bawdy) romp through the bedrooms and gardens of Regency-era England.
If it evokes comparisons to Emma, Pride & Prejudice, or even Bridgerton, then so be it. A movie could do worse than stand beside those works, and it manages to make itself unique in the crowded sub-genre of period films and TV shows chronicling the endlessly absurd game of love and social status.
Mr. Malcolm’s List is currently playing in select theaters nationwide.
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