Mr. Malcolm’s List takes place mostly in 1818 during London’s social season, where two childhood besties scheme to mete out poetic justice to a haughty suitor. As a Georgian-era romance concocted by American writer Suzanne Allain, who published the novel in 2009 and subsequently turned it into a screenplay, the film enjoys a level of artistic license not afforded classic lit, which usually carries firmly established interpretations and scholarship. The filmmakers prudently exercise this leeway with the sort of colorblind casting used to great effect by Hamilton and Bridgerton. Comparisons to the latter are inevitable and their gambit pays off, but it’s the only aspect that makes Mr. Malcolm’s List fresh and interesting.
The titular Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, Mothering Sunday and Silent Night) is London’s most eligible bachelor, heir to a sizable fortune and a country estate. Wary of gold diggers, Mr. Malcolm keeps an impossible list—though perhaps not shockingly misogynistic for early 19th-century England—of 10 attributes he seeks in a match. The requirements are the same in both novel and film, although they’re inexplicably out of order in the latter save for No. 4, “Converses in a sensible fashion.” How dare he, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton, Dreams Of A Life) fumes, after Mr. Malcolm spurns her for failing to meet his exacting standards on a night out at the opera together.
News of Mr. Malcolm’s rebuff makes the rounds the next morning, further diminishing marriage prospects for Julia, who is considered seasoned in London society at this point. Humiliated, she enlists her former roommate from Mrs. Finch’s Ladies’ Academy, Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire), to act the part of Mr. Malcolm’s ideal woman and then reject him on the basis of her own tall-order list. That’ll teach him, Julia thinks. Meanwhile, Capt. Henry Ossory (Theo James, Divergent) arrives with intentions of courting Selina at the urging of his aunt. And you surely know what happens next. The story practically writes itself.
Because the narrative is entirely predictable, the only thing one can do to jazz things up is colorblind casting. Those choices include Naoko Mori (Doctor Who) as Julia’s mother Mrs. Thistlewaite; Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Lost Daughter) as Julia’s cousin Lord Cassidy; and Paul Tylak and Dawn Bradfield as Selina’s parents. Suffice it to say that certain mental gymnastics are necessary for this to make sense. But the acting here is so good that you wonder why filmmakers haven’t taken this leap of faith for decades.
Though well-intentioned as redress for decades of underrepresentation, colorblind casting does have some undesirable side effects, chiefly the erasure of the period’s racism. Mr. Malcolm’s List has handled this more deftly than Bridgerton by developing nuanced characters and by tossing away racial constructs altogether so that its story exists firmly in utopia. By hinting at inequities and leaving them unaddressed, Bridgerton leaves its racial commentary muddled.
The supporting cast in Mr. Malcolm’s List is full of scene stealers, including Ashley Park (Emily in Paris and Girls5eva) as Gertie Covington, Selina’s giggly and embarrassing cousin, and the aforementioned Mori. They blend right in with perfect mannerisms and posh accents, doing the heavy lifting for suspension of any disbelief. But it is Ashton who emerges as the star. The bratty and cunning Julia is a delicious role, and Ashton has immense fun with it. By contrast, Pinto, Dìrísù, and James seem a bit reserved, which may be period appropriate and polite toward fellow castmates, but chemistry among the tentative lovers is lacking. It’s as if they themselves need a little reminder that this is an escapist fantasy, and signs of fire, passion, and burning desire would make the pairings more convincing. In fact, Pinto and Dìrísù share a more memorable moment just exchanging glances in the 11-minute short Mr. Malcolm’s List from 2019, progenitor of the feature.
The 2022 Mr. Malcolm’s List reunites some of the cast and crew from 2019, with the notable replacement of Gemma Chan, who originated the role of Julia. Though this is director Emma Holly Jones’ debut feature, she already proved herself with the 2019 short, exuding the assuredness to lend authenticity to this American work of fiction. Right from the first frame, you notice the pristine cinematography by Tony Miller (Fleabag). The entire production, from costumes to set designs, is on par with tradition-of-quality prestige TV. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, that will likely be best remembered for colorblind casting done right.