Mr. Malcolm’s List Review: A Playful Comedy of Manners

It is a universally recognized truth that if someone diss you in public, you must return the favor and get revenge. That’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 to establishing one’s social reputation and securing lucrative (and no-frills) marriages. love).

It’s the thrust behind Mr. Malcolm’s Listthe latest costume drama not too far from Bridgerton who is interested in affairs of the heart as they come into conflict with concerns of social prestige and mobility. Yet, unlike the 1988 version of Dangerous Liaisons or recent TV shows such as Belgravia and Golden age, this vintage image is more silly and humorous than grim and serious. As a result, the film is one of the best comedies of the year, a lively and bubbly satire that moves quickly and confidently. It’s lighthearted fun, which is hard to achieve in any genre.

Pretty Woman meets Bridgerton

Based on the 2009 novel by Suzanne Allen (who also wrote the screenplay) and the 2019 short film of the same name, Mr. Malcolm’s List chronicles the friendship of wealthy Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) and working-class Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto) from childhood (in a brief opening scene) to young adulthood. Increasingly desperate to find a husband to support her lavish lifestyle, Julia sets her sights on Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), London’s most eligible bachelor who has a list of demands no woman has. satisfied. After an awkward date that leaves him indifferent and socially embarrassed, Julia embarks on a plan: to 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 could embody all of Mr. Malcolm’s demands, Julia decides to create one herself. With the help 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 swirling makeover montages reminiscent my lovely lady and A pretty womanSelina trades her mundane 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 uncovered. There’s even a masked ball that brings everyone together in the third act. Still, saying more wouldn’t necessarily spoil the surprise because Mr. Malcolm’s List doesn’t drastically rework this formula as much as he executes it so well.

A sure hand

Two people stand in the moonlight in Mr. Malcolm's list.

This is partly due to the confident direction of Emma Holly Jones, who is making her film debut and already establishing a clear style. Light but never frivolous, Mr. Malcolm’s List tells a conventional story in a conventional way, but Jones makes sure that never feels like a drag. She doesn’t waste too much time on obvious plot points and is careful to build her characters so that they are complete people, not pawns on a chessboard.

She’s aided by a terrific cast, especially the supporting players who all have their moments to shine. As two romantic leads, Dirisu and Pinto are charismatic enough without breaking the mold too much. Mr. Malcolm is clearly a stand-in for Mr. Darcy, while Selina is every Jane Austen heroine rolled into one package. The actors can’t do much beyond simmer or sulk, depending on the plot devices, but that’s okay because they aren’t the main draw of the movie anyway.

The real stars

Captain Ossory has Julia on Mr. Malcolm's list.

As the somewhat conceited and mildly dimwitted Julia, Ashton is a delight and the standout performer for the wealthy cast. What could have been a stock villain role is instead the most charming and relatable character in the entire movie, and that’s down to Ashton’s poor performance. Naughty but sweet when it counts, her Julia is always entertaining, and you often wish she had more screen time to hear more of her criticism.

Jackson-Cohen matches him as the dim-witted and difficult Lord Cassidy. Far from the gloomy plots of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor for which he is best known, Jackson-Cohen has fun in this film as the Pygmalion hovering over Selina and trying (and failing) to put Julia in her place. It’s a performance that invokes the weak faps and cads that David Niven and Alec Guinness played so well in 1950s British Comedies and Jackson-Cohen never missteps.

Other artists also shine. Theo James plays handsome Captain Ossory with a sly grin, as if he knows how absurdly handsome he is and can’t believe it. As Mr. Malcolm’s bullying mother, Doña Croll tricks you into believing the firm grip she has on her son and society with nothing more than a withered eyebrow. It’s a compelling performance in the best sense of the word, without looking full.

A complete package

With catchy direction and a cast suited to the satirical bite of the script, Mr. Malcolm’s List is a rightful successor to Jane Austen’s comic throne. What might have been a dry, superficial affair is instead a breezy (but never bawdy) adventure into the rooms and gardens of Regency-era England.

If he evokes comparisons with Emma, Pride and Prejudiceor even Bridgerton, so be it. A film could do worse than stand next to these works, and it manages to make itself unique in the crowded subgenre of period films and TV shows chronicling the infinitely absurd interplay of love and social status.

Mr. Malcolm’s List is currently playing in select theaters nationwide.

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