“Mr. Malcolm’s List” has a scrumptious light charm. It’s a Regency romance set in London in 1818, where someone in the film is being fooled at every moment. The deceptions and symmetries are standard, but this is the kind of movie that rises or falls on whether the actors can carry the duplicity — and the innocence — aloft. And the actors here are marvelous: tart, stylish, emotionally vibrant, never more knowing than when they’re being duped.
The film, directed with an alluring blend of badinage and upper-crust sensuality by Emma Holly Jones, is based on a novel by Suzanne Allain (who wrote the screenplay), which was published in 2020 and designed to be a playful riff on Jane Austen. Yet it’s funny how big-screen adaptations in the “Masterpiece Theatre” genre can work. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is Jane Austen Lite, but if you watch, say, the 2005 film version of “Pride and Prejudice,” you could call that “Pride and Prejudice” Lite. These movies, almost by necessity (i.e., a two-hour running time), tend to strip the novels to their elegant bones, and “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” in its imitation-classic way, is as tricky and diverting an entertainment as Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” or the recent version of “Emma.” It’s a pleasingly clever dessert, which is what so many of these movies are, though in this case without the tony literary pedigree.
It’s also a period love story in which three out of the four main characters are played by actors of color, and that’s a breakthrough that’s part of the film’s freshness. It’s not unprecedented, of course. The 2011 “Wuthering Heights” starred James Howson as Heathcliff, and “Bridgerton” has been a game-changer in the casting of historical romantic dramas. But “Mr. Malcolm’s List” still feels like it’s pushing open a door that’s only recently been unlocked, and doing so with a kind of verve that points to a costume-drama future of far more adventurous spirit.
The title character, Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), is a highly eligible bachelor, owing to his good looks and inherited wealth. But the fact that he’s the target of every lady he meets is a rather burdensome privilege. It means that he’s constantly fending off fortune hunters. In an early scene, we see his dismal date at the opera with Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), whose lack of worldly sophistication (she wonders why so many operas are foreign) is, to him, an instant deal-breaker. At one point he yawns in her company, which results in a minor scandal of gossip: a caricature, distributed all over town, that depicts a wayward-looking Julia with Mr. Malcolm saying “Next!” If that cartoon caption strikes you as an Ariana Grande anachronism, that works as part of the film’s insouciance.
Mr. Malcolm, it seems, has a checklist of 10 attributes that any prospect of his must meet for him to consider marrying her. Julia failed #4 (“Converses in a sensible fashion”). Beyond that, though, she finds the whole idea of such a list repugnant. So she sets about getting her 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 mate. Then, when he proposes, Selina will turn the tables by revealing that she has a list of her own, whose qualifications he has failed to meet.
The list idea is an easy one to mock, even as a plot point, until you consider how un-farfetched it actually is, and how relevant to our own age of online courtship. These days, who doesn’t have a list? The British Nigerian actor Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, in a performance of disarming sincerity, makes Malcolm’s list the very definition of a kind of bumblingly wrongheaded idealism. He’s seeking a partner who doesn’t just want his money; who has spirit and character and will be a companion; who 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 math formula is a strategy doomed to fail.
Especially given that Selina fulfills more or less every item on the list without trying. You feel the pair’s chemistry, which in a costume drama like this one tends to be an ironically civilized thing: a meshing of temperaments, of hearts and minds that rhyme. But life has a way of undermining the most well-laid plans, as when Selina’s cousin, the chatterbox vulgarian Gertie (Ashley Park), shows up with the potential to KO Malcolm’s list requirement about having respectable relatives.
There are movies that artfully deconstruct 19th-century views of marriage, money, property, and the question of whether love, for men and women, is a privilege or a divine right. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” glances over those themes without rocking the boat. It’s a highly traditional romance, pairing off its couples just so. Julia, who sets the wheels in motion, reacts to her humiliation by revealing her inner bully. She’s spitefully obsessed, and doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, yet the trick of Zawe Ashton’s performance is that she plays Julia’s haughtiness as an effusion of misplaced passion. Theo James, as the brash soldier who falls for her, looks combat ready, which he will need to be.
There’s a grand ball, a dance scene that speaks more than words, a pulling the rug out from under the pretense of chivalry, a garden reconciliation set up by the last person we would have expected, and a recognition that the whole trouble with Mr. Malcolm’s list isn’t that it’s coming from a bad place. It’s that when you turn love into shopping, you’re too in control of what you’re looking for, and therefore what you find.