The year is 1818. A trio of artists — two theater managers and a painter, specifically — found a theater in South London. They call it the Royal Coburg Theater; modern audiences know it as the Old Vic. An anonymous writer publishes Frankenstein, an enticing horror about a science experiment gone wrong. And Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), an acerbic bachelorette in Emma Holly Jones’ congenial comedy of errors Mr. Malcolm’s List, is, much to her chagrin, still unmarried.
Based on the romance novel by Suzanne Allain, Mr. Malcolm’s List is a witty tale of 19th-century London’s competitive marriage market. If the previous sentence conjures images of Netflix’s Bridgerton, that’s to be expected. Like that regency-era show, Mr. Malcolm’s List serves up its gilded rituals and lessons in love and friendship with a multiracial and multicultural showcase. Yet there are elements of Jane Austen there too, as Mr. Malcolm’s List leans more satirical than its obvious television counterpoint. And whereas a sultry narrative fuels Bridgerton across its seasons, strong performances from key supporting players are what keep Mr. Malcolm’s List engaging.
Mr. Malcolm’s List
The Bottom Line
A congenial comedy of manners.
Only a handful of people can relate to Julia’s situation. Among them is Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a notoriously fastidious bachelor. Rumors about whom he might end up with circulate each season. At the start of the film, the spotlight shines on Julia, whom Mr. Malcolm has invited to the opera. The pair make a handsome couple, or so the gossip mill says early into their evening. But tides turn quickly and the favorable opinion sours after Julia misunderstands Mr. Malcolm’s question about a hotly debated issue. She thinks the Corn Laws have to do with diets instead of the economic wellbeing of Britain’s farmers. The morning after the frosty date, Julia becomes the subject of cruel mockery across the city.
Mr. Malcolm’s rejection and the subsequent backlash spurs Julia to action. She enlists her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to figure out why Mr. Malcolm never called her. And it’s through the diffident lord’s search that a determined Julia finds out about Mr. Malcolm’s list of qualities required for his perfect woman — questionable practice to say the least.
Attentive viewers will know what’s about to happen when Julia calls upon her childhood friend Selina (Freida Pinto) to come visit her in London. Selina, who has been writing Julia since they met as schoolgirls at Mrs. Finch’s Ladies Academy, is eager to see her friend after all these years. Never mind the uneven nature of their friendship: Selina has dutifully written to Julia over the years, while Julia can barely keep up with the goings-on of her friend’s life.
Selina’s arrival initiates Julia’s plan to give Mr. Malcolm his comeuppance. (She also manages to conscript a reluctant Cassidy.) The moment Selina pulls up to Julia’s palatial London manor, she is put to work, training to be Mr. Malcolm’s dream woman.
Mr. Malcolm’s Lists takes its time to settle into its story. There’s a lot of set-up, from establishing Julia and Selina’s relationship at school via flashback to contextualizing London’s marriage market. But once the pieces are in place, there’s a smooth and familiar cadence to the nearly two-hour film. The saturation of regency and gilded era visual content as of late means viewers will be primed for the aesthetic motifs of Mr. Malcolm’s List: Corseted dresses, grand feather hats, elaborately wallpapered ballrooms and sweeping music that carries us from one scene to the next.
As Selina gets to know Mr. Malcolm, they fall deeper in love. The two take long walks in sumptuous gardens and loll around museums. They banter about art and politics and ease into more earnest conversations about love and loss. Pinto and Dirisu’s interactions are charming enough, but they never quite captivate or tickle as much as the supporting cast of characters. Ashton, in particular, dominates, with her razor-sharp comedic timing ensuring thrilling delivery of her tart lines. When she shares a screen with Jackson-Cohen or later with Theo James, who plays Mr. Malcolm’s friend Captain Henry Ossory, the film becomes more vivacious. Quips and asides from Julia’s maid Molly (Sianand Gregory) and footman John (Divian Ladwa) add even more spirit and texture with commentary that acknowledges the divide of the ruling class and their labor force.
The quartet’s jokes sustain us to the end of Mr. Malcolm’s List, when Julia’s plan runs into predictable roadblocks. Luckily, enough broken hearts are mended, lessons learned and compromises made so viewers won’t have to spend too much time wondering whether or not love — in romantic pairings or friendships — will prevail.