If you need a quick snapshot summary: the titular Mr. Jeremiah Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) has been long-talked-about in society, not just because of a fortune that would be substantial enough to see to any future wife’s needs but owing to the fact that he is in possession of a certain list. Said list numbers out each of the qualities that Mr. Malcolm is looking for in a potential bride, and any woman who does not meet with every single one of these attributes is quickly and summarily discarded. Unsurprisingly, this perfunctory method of courtship ends up making its way into the scandal sheets via caricature — as well as the name of the most recently rejected party, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton). Enraged and embarrassed, especially once she finds out about the infamous list, Julia reaches out to her childhood friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), with the aim of concocting a scheme against Mr. Malcolm to get revenge for his poor treatment of her. The goal? Selina will present herself as the personification of every single quality Malcolm is looking for in a wife, but the endgame will involve her public rejection of him, as well as the reveal that he has failed to meet her listed-out qualifications for a prospective husband. Granted, none of the conspiring parties involved, including Julia and her cousin Lord Cassidy (a rather fidgety Oliver Jackson-Cohen), could have ever predicted what would happen when Selina and Malcolm actually set eyes on each other for the first time — beneath the moonlight and in the privacy of an orangerie — before either one is actually aware of whom the other truly is.
If that setting alone reads as particularly swoony, then you may be pleased to know that Mr. Malcolm’s List delivers on every one of the scenes between its romantic leads that are thoroughly infused with more yearning — even if they happen somewhat sparingly in comparison to the overall plot of the film. That initial chance encounter between Selina and Malcolm, in which the two of them proceed to have the equivalent of Regency-era foreplay in the form of a verbal sparring match, is the first of several between the two that deliver the right combination of tension and allure, and director Jones knows exactly how to frame each lingering instance of hands and gazes to build up the anticipation for what’s to come. When Malcolm places a gloved touch over Selina’s arms in order to assist her with finding her best shot in a game of pall-mall, or as the two of them gaze inextricably into one another’s eyes during a waltz at a costumed ball, these scenes are readily felt, especially because Dìrísù proves such a transfixing presence on-screen. A scene in which his character fights and fails to hide a beaming smile during his first dance with Selina left me utterly charmed and could truly solidify Mr. Malcolm as one of the leading Regency heroes right alongside others of the canon, like Darcy or Knightley.
Pinto’s largest efforts in her performance involve earnestness and being torn between two conflicting but equally strong feelings, as Selina struggles with remaining steadfast to a dear friend while finding herself falling for the man she has already agreed to sabotage. She’s more of an unadorned existence on-screen, though, next to the utter force of comedy that is Ashton’s Julia, who seems primed to know exactly when to utter a sudden, wordless exclamation of dismay purely for the sake of drama. It helps that the two women are such opposite personalities, with Selina often needing to rein Julia back from her more outlandish ideas while Julia frequently nudges Selina to be bolder and less cautious. Meanwhile, the climax of the crisis that occurs, as well as the darkest moment of betrayal, actually plays out with equal importance between the film’s lifelong friends as it does its romantic duo. While Julia could have come across as particularly one-note in the hands of a lesser actress, Ashton imbues the role with oodles of charm and humor as well as crucial sincerity — which doesn’t necessarily absolve the character of all of her missteps, but certainly goes a long way to making her more endearing. Simultaneously, Julia isn’t abandoned without a potential romance of her own, with equally enjoyable banter playing out between her and the handsome Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James) in the backdrop to the central love story.
There might be few real surprises over the course of Mr. Malcolm’s List, but that’s precisely the point. Even if you know what the natural end result of Julia’s misguidedly hatched plan for Selina and Malcolm will be (and those who are most familiar with the genre certainly will), the most compelling aspects of the film lie in a readiness to follow these characters in the journey itself, through all of the highs and lows. It’s one of the aspects of any romance that the movie gets absolutely right. When the finale automatically revolves around a happy ending, all that’s required of us is to sit back and enjoy the story, and in the hands of this particular ensemble, the course of true love may not run entirely smooth, but it also couldn’t be more charming to watch.
Mr. Malcolm’s List is currently set for theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada on July 1.