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Director Emma Holly Jones makes her feature debut with “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” an adaptation of the novel by Suzanne Allain, who also wrote the screenplay. Jones and Allain also collaborated on a short film adaptation of the book in 2019, and the feature film sees many of the stars reprising their roles.
Set in Regency-era England amongst the high-stakes mating rituals of the upper class, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” will obviously call to mind the filmed adaptations of Jane Austen’s work and, of course, the Netflix smash hit series “Bridgerton.”
Following the lead of “Bridgerton” (even though the short film was released before the sexy series swept us off our feet in 2020), Jones’ film boasts a refreshingly diverse cast. These aristocratic families are racially blended, and the color-blind casting enables some wonderful performances.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a twisty little riff on Jane Austen’s greatest hits, combining the enemies-to-lovers storyline of “Pride and Prejudice” and the scheming of “Emma,” with a dash of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” for good measure. (The strategic makeover that has been referenced in “She’s All That,” “My Fair Lady” and even “Ruby Sparks” is a classic for a reason.)
Freida Pinto stars as country girl Selina, the daughter of a vicar, who is summoned to London by an old school friend, the haughty Julia (Zawe Ashton, “Velvet Buzzsaw”), who has been humiliated by a recent public rejection. Vying for the heart of the wealthy and desirable Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, “Silent Night”), she has failed to meet his stringent list of requirements for a wife, and now she seeks revenge.
Using the sweet Selina as bait, Julia hopes to turn her into the perfect, box-checking prospect for Mr. Malcolm before turning a list of requirements back on him for a taste of his own medicine. What Julia doesn’t anticipate is that the two might fall for each other instead, which is obviously what is going to happen between two extremely attractive people who have yet to encounter each other on London’s ball circuit.
Julia, the schemer, is the antagonist in this comedy of manners. Ashton’s performance is so perfectly hilarious that she becomes the unlikely romantic heroine, not the villain. One can’t help but fall in love with her, despite her flaws and social fumbling, which is, as it turns out, the point of the story. Ashton pulls off some real laugh-out-loud moments, and her performance should be a star-making turn for her. She’s so magnetic, however, that she draws all the attention away from the ostensible romantic leads of the film, Pinto and Dìrísù, who are supposed to be the Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy of “Mr. Malcolm’s List.”
It’s just that, sigh, these two are such a snooze. Pinto is, of course, lovely and charming, and Dirisu a strapping, handsome man. But Selina doesn’t have any of the sassy prickliness that makes Lizzie so relatable, and Dìrísù’s Malcolm is simply just reserved, which, unfortunately makes him a bit boring.
It’s unclear why Malcolm’s such a heartbreaker, except that he has a lot of money and a list — we don’t ever really see him in action. His demeanor rarely changes throughout the film, despite Julia trying to pass him off to Selina as arrogant. Though Julia’s misguided derision is what drives the story, it would work better if we actually believed what Julia said and then grew to like him, as we do with Mr. Darcy.
In the case of “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” it’s Julia and Henry (Theo James), a military man and old acquaintance of Selina’s, that draws our attention. While Henry originally sets his sites on Selina, making for a good old-fashioned competition for her heart between him and Malcolm, it’s all too quickly clear that he and Julia have the kind of sizzling chemistry that sparks off the screen, while Selina and Malcolm’s remains woefully inert.
It’s a classic case of the side characters being more interesting than the picture-perfect leads, and that also goes for Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s effete Lord Cassidy, Julia’s cousin and co-conspirator, and another major source of laughs. What “Mr. Malcolm’s List” fails to realize is that romantic leads are more compelling when we can see their flaws, their quirks and their vulnerabilities. In rendering Selina too pure and Malcolm too steady, there’s nothing relatable about them, which is why Julia’s arc is far more captivating and easier to connect to for an audience member.
Jones’ debut is stuffed to the brim with the sharp dialogue and rich costumes that bring us back to the period romance genre again and again. Her direction is serviceable, and the pacing never lingers too long, keeping the laughs and romance coming. The direction of the interior scenes is a bit staid, but her work shines when we’re liberated out of doors in the English countryside. The locations give this film a sense of authenticity and a lived-in feel akin to Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice” or Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” not so much the over-the-top, fantastical design of “Bridgerton” or Autumn de Wilde’s artfully composed “Emma.”
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a sweet diversion to tide over fans of the period romance between “Bridgerton” seasons, and hopefully serves as a breakout role for Zawe Ashton, who steals the show.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” opens in US theaters July 1.