Now streaming on:
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a light, frothy movie that concerns a gentleman who has the wrong idea about dating. Or as it’s known in this 19th-century period piece, courtship. Mr. Malcolm is played by Sope Dirisu, with a poise that would make Sidney Poitier proud, and he carries that confidence to his misguided search for the perfect wife in Regency-era England. He has an actual list of ten qualities that he wants from a perfect match, including: “Candid, truthful and guileless,” “amiable and even-tempered,” having musical talent, and also being able to talk about politics. The wealthy Mr. Malcolm is a hot commodity in the dating pool that he is anxious to get a bride from, but he’s clearly not making it easier.
One woman, Ms. Julia Thistlewaite, experiences the burn from this list—she didn’t meet the politics requirement during an otherwise disastrous date at the opera. And she does not take it well, especially when the local newspaper makes a meme of her disastrous date for all the public to laugh about. To heal her bruised ego, this character played by Zawe Ashton enlists her somewhat naive childhood friend from the country, Ms. Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) in a classic scheme—Ms. Dalton will pretend to be the different things that Mr. Malcolm is looking for. She'll read large books, pretend to play Chopin on piano (with the help of Ms. Thistlewaite's cousin, Lord Cassidy [Oliver Jackson-Cohen]), and charm Mr. Malcolm with a hoax. And right when he declares his love for this fake version of Ms. Dalton, he’ll learn a lesson about being so picky. Things do not go according to plan.
Many directors talk about casting as being one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process, and director Emma Holly Jones certainly celebrates that here. There is no weak link or uninteresting person in this ensemble; it’s full of compelling, contrasting energies that own the era's dialogue and polite physicality. Pinto is mighty charming in the role that has Ms. Dalton going along for the ride, but maintaining her gut instinct about love; Dirisu is equal parts charming and imperfect as his character reveals his more sensitive side; Ashton is just the right amount of frustrating as the jilted mastermind who threatens to trash everything, including her friendship, with her vanity; Theo James, as Captain Henry Ossory, looks great with a top hat and mustache while adding another gentle complication to this movie’s strolling, PG-rated romance.
"Mr. Malcolm's List" throws in other side characters who add little flourishes, and will likely make viewers wish this character here or there had more screen-time. I enjoyed the off-hand banter between footman John (Divian Ladwa) and maid Molly (Sianad Gregory), who get to watch the proceedings and make comments while sparking their connection. Jackson-Cohen has an amusing part as ditzy cousin Lord Cassidy, which includes his serious fear of horses and mispronunciation of Greek philosophers. Naoko Mori oversees much of this as Mrs. Thistlewaite, giving the camera a juicy side-eye or two. And Ashley Park has a good deal of fun with the colorful part as socialite Ms. Gertie Covington, in which she barrels into a few scenes and giggles at 100 mph, owning her character’s placement as being twice married and looking for round three.
Did you notice that many of these actors are people of color, playing roles one would not typically see in previous recreations of the Regency era? The film wants you to notice, but in its quietly subversive nature, it lets that all speak for itself. "Mr. Malcolm's List" is, through and through, about dignity. Always dignity.
As period piece entertainment, the movie shoots pheasants in a barrel. It’s got all the genre trappings that can fill trailers and sell tickets: horseback riding captured in a wide shot, seductive dances to Schubert, lavish gowns, carriage rides, characters sipping tea, a night at the opera, a tour of a rose garden, a masquerade. And you would be plenty replenished if you drank water every time someone was politely addressed as “Mr.” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” “Mr. Malcolm’s List” loves the purity that comes with a wholesome period piece ("namby-pamby" is the most offensive thing said throughout) and often flourishes with it.
Based on the book by Suzanne Allain, who also wrote the script, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” feels as choreographed as a dance, and that becomes a large part of its welcoming ease across two hours. There’s no great, believable reason that Ms. Dalton and Lord Covington go along with Ms. Thistlewaite’s plan, but it’s much more fun to see it unfold than it is to poke holes into. And while the conflicts come right on time and resolve with mighty tidiness, "Mr. Malcolm's List" is not really about surprise. For centuries, across many hellscapes of dating, people have found the dance itself to be good fun. And for a perfectly fine reason.
Now playing in theaters.
Freida Pinto as Selina Dalton
Zawe Ashton as Julia Thistlewaite
Sope Dirisu as Jeremy Malcolm
Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Lord Cassidy
Ashley Park as Gertie Covington
Theo James as Captain Henry Ossory
Sianad Gregory as Molly
Divian Ladwa as John
Naoko Mori as Mrs. Thistlewaite