Review: Mr. Malcolm’s List — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

This late Regency era period piece about plucky young women chafing against the social norms of their day seems to have been fished from a drawer in Jane Austen’s writing desk.

Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street

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Mr. Malcolm’s List

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

Stars: Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu, Zawe Ashton

Writer: Suzanne Allain

Director: Emma Holly Jones

 

It’s easy to imagine Jane Austen, transported to the present day and plopped down into a movie theater showing Mr. Malcolm’s List, furrowing her brow and muttering, “Hmm…I don’t remember writing this one…”

Indeed, this late Regency era period piece about plucky young women chafing against the social norms of their day — even as they scrunch themselves into their corsets and crinoline for an endless whirl of balls, carriage rides, and dress-up pheasant shooting — seems to have been fished from a drawer in Austen’s writing desk, rediscovered under a neatly tied bundle of billet-doux.

Set in 1817 — perhaps not coincidentally, the year of Austen’s death — Mr. Malcolm’s List first introduces us to Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), a London society woman dangerously close to aging out of her marriage-eligible years (meaning she is approaching 20). Having desperately set her sights on a certain Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a wealthy, young and handsome member of the Idle Rich, Julia turns on the charms during an outing to the opera. But she blows her chances by unknowingly failing to check off all ten boxes on a secret list Malcolm keeps: The qualities he’s seeking in any prospective spouse.

For Julia, it’s bad enough the London society press is screaming the news that she has been dumped by Mr. Malcolm — but when her cousin, a friend of Malcolm, tells her about his secretive list, she’s ready to burst her bustle.

Revenge must be had, and Julia has a diabolical brainstorm: She will summon from the country her oldest friend, Selina (Freida Pinto), to woo Mr. Malcolm. Armed with foreknowledge of all ten points on that list, Selina will dutifully meet every criteria — and then, the moment Malcolm proposes marriage, she will present him with her own list, bristling with qualities in which he is terminally lacking.

Granted, Julia’s creaky plan does have more than its share of possible failure points, but because director Emma Holly Jones and writer Suzanne Allain (working from her own novel) are in charge of this particular universe, no one notices. The subterfuge, misunderstandings, and outright lies fly like lead at Waterloo until all the characters are hopelessly lost in the fog of romantic war.

But none of that matters. If you don’t know how Mr. Malcolm’s List is going to end after its first 15 minutes, you are totally missing the point. We’re here for the impossibly beautiful people; the exquisitely crafted costumes; the stately English gardens. It does help immensely that Jones has assembled a universally charming young troupe — saucer-eyed, earnest, and, as seems to be in vogue these days, as diversely cast as a Parents Day play at the United Nations.

In the wrap-up, of course, Mr. Malcolm learns that true love cannot be found by ticking off boxes. Which is ironic, because even at its most engaging, his movie is one exhaustive Austenian checklist.

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