A romantic costume drama with expertly played charm

“Mr. Malcolm’s List” has a delightful lighthearted charm. It’s a Regency romance set in 1818 London, where someone in the film is deceived every moment. Deceptions and symmetries are standard, but it’s is the kind of film that goes up or down if the actors can carry the duplicity – and the innocence – in the air. And the actors here are wonderful: tangy, stylish, emotionally vibrant, never knowing more than when they are fooled.

The film, directed with a seductive mix of banter and bourgeois sensuality by Emma Holly Jones, is based on a novel by Suzanne Allain (who wrote the screenplay), which was released in 2020 and designed to be a playful riff on Jane Austin. Still, it’s funny how big-screen adaptations in the “Masterpiece Theater” genre can work. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is Jane Austen Lite, but if you watch, say, the movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” from 2005, you might call it “Pride and Prejudice” Lite. These movies, almost out of necessity (c ‘that is, two hours in length), tend to strip novels of their elegant bones, and ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’, in its classic imitation, is as delicate and entertaining entertainment as ‘Love & Friendship’. by Whit Stillman or the recent version of “Emma”.

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It’s also a period love story in which three of the four main characters are played by actors of color, and that’s a breakthrough that’s part of the film’s coolness. It’s not unprecedented, of course. 2011’s “Wuthering Heights” starred James Howson as Heathcliff, and “Bridgerton” was a game-changer in the cast of historical romance dramas. But “Mr. Malcolm’s List” still feels like it’s opening a door that’s only recently been opened, and it does so with a sort of verve that points to a costumed-drama future of a much bigger spirit. adventurous.

The main character, Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), is a highly eligible bachelor, due to his good looks and inherited wealth. But the fact that he is the target of all the women he meets is a rather weighty privilege. This means that he constantly fends off fortune hunters. In a first scene, we see his sad date at the opera with Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), whose lack of worldly sophistication (she wonders why so many operas are foreign to him) is, for him, an immediate break. At one point, he yawns in her company, resulting in a minor gossip scandal: a cartoon, distributed throughout the city, which depicts a wayward-looking Julia with Mr. Malcolm saying “Next!” If this cartoon caption strikes you as an Ariana Grande anachronism, that’s part of the film’s recklessness.

Mr. Malcolm, it seems, has a checklist of 10 attributes that any prospect of his must meet in order for him to consider marrying her. Julia Failed #4 (“Converse Sensibly”). Beyond that, however, she finds the whole idea of ​​such a list repugnant. So she sets out to get revenge by summoning Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), her childhood friend from the countryside (they went to girls’ school together), to visit her in London, where she will carefully set up Selina to be Mr. Malcolm’s perfect companion. Then, when he proposes, Selina will turn the tables by revealing that she has her own roster, the qualifications of which he failed to meet.

The list idea is easy to scoff at, even as a plot, until you consider how far-fetched it is and how relevant it is to our own age of online dating. These days who doesn’t have a list? British Nigerian actor Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, in a performance of disarming sincerity, makes Malcolm’s List the very definition of a kind of awkwardly awkward idealism. He’s looking for a partner who doesn’t just want his money; who has spirit and character and will be a companion; that he can love. Dìrísù invests Malcolm with a gravity that makes him sexy; he really believes in his list. Yet, of course, reducing romance to an emotional mathematical formula is a doomed strategy.

Especially since Selina more or less fills in all the items on the list without trying. You feel the chemistry of the pair, which in a costume drama like this tends to be an ironically civilized thing: a mesh of rhyming tempers, hearts, and minds. But life has a way of undermining the best-laid plans, like when Selina’s cousin, the gossipy vulgar Gertie (Ashley Park), shows up with the potential to knock out Malcolm’s list requirement to have sex. respectable parents.

There are movies that cleverly deconstruct 19th century views on marriage, money, property and whether love, for men and women, is a privilege or a divine right. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” takes a look at these themes without rocking the boat. It’s a very traditional romance, pairing its couples alike. Julia, who sets the wheels in motion, reacts to her humiliation by revealing her inner brute.She’s wickedly obsessed and doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, but the trick to Zawe Ashton’s performance is that she plays Julia’s pitch as a misplaced outpouring of passion. Theo James, as a hot-headed soldier who falls in love with her, seems battle-ready, which he will have to be.

There’s a grand ball, a dance scene that speaks louder than words, a coin toss on the pretense of chivalry, a garden reconciliation arranged by the last person we expected, and an acknowledgment that the whole issue with Mr. Malcolm’s list isn’t that she came from a bad place. It’s that when you turn love into shopping, you have too much control over what you seek, and therefore what you find.

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