Mr. Malcolm’s List isn’t the most chemistry-rich Regency rom-com to come along, but its modern undertones and strong ensemble work make it a recommendable entry into the en vogue subgenre.
Everybody get your Regency romance bingo cards out, it’s time for Emma Holly Jones’ Mr. Malcolm’s List. An aloof gentleman bachelor with an inconceivably large fortune? Check. An eloquent, plucky, but tragically lower-class heroine? Check. More schemes and shenanigans than you can shake a stick at? Also check. For good measure, throw in a dashing captain, an impetuous sister, and high-society intrigue, and all the ingredients are there for a by-the-numbers Regency rom-com. With such a solid box of tricks to return to, new additions to the genre can wind up feeling stale, plain, or outdated, or they can go down the equally frustrating route of skewing more experimental, and ending up with a film that doesn’t seem to quite know what it is, cast somewhere between modern and traditional (see Netflix’s recent Persuasion adaptation). The scheme that animates the plot here — an aristocrat apparently growing past her prime (Zawe Ashton) is rejected by the titular Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu) after failing to meet one of his many written criteria for a bride, and enlists her adopted sister Selina (Freida Pinto) and cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in seeking revenge — is more reminiscent of the Shakespearean comedies than anything contemporary, though there is certainly more than a hint of the screwball romantic comedy in the film’s DNA. The film’s casting is racially diverse, perhaps inspired by Netflix’s recent success with Bridgerton popularizing the trend, but given the film’s clear theatrical influences, the choice is perhaps equally due to the slightly longer theatrical tradition of race-blind casting. The result is a comedy that feels timeless, drawing on influences both old and new with a synchronicity that belies a confident filmmaker who has a deep understanding of, but is not beholden to, the genre she is operating within.
To a not insignificant degree, most romantic comedies succeed or fail based on the chemistry of their leads — it’s an alchemical thing, easier to get wrong than right — but what is somewhat baffling is that Mr. Malcolm’s List is able to succeed as well as it does when Dirisu and Pinto’s chemistry is only really middling for much of the film. Apart, both actors do an entirely satisfactory job of carrying the film, especially Dirisu, who manages to bring an absolutely magnetic charm to a character who is, on paper, aloof and even cold. But together, there is something left wanting about the pair. Especially when compared to its most obvious counterparts, like Emma. and Bridgerton, Mr. Malcolm’s List does feel somewhat sexless, devoid of the easy chemistry of the former and barely-concealed lust of the latter. While intellectual bonds can be just as fascinating to watch, the film feels almost too buttoned-up for its own good, and in spite of all Dirisu’s ardent gazing, something crucial is missing. Perhaps the answer to the success of Mr. Malcolm’s List despite this void comes in its ensemble, a group who have far more chemistry as a whole than the central couple. As an actress primarily seen on the stage, Zawe Ashton brings a unique energy to Julia Thistlewaite, the spurned sister, turning up the camp and caricature to the exact right level and maintaining admirable comedic control. Julia can be impetuous, childish, cruel, and grating, but Ashton never once lets that get in the way of being sympathetic, with all the loud staginess of her performance creating voids when her bravado falters, which Ashton is just as capable of navigating. As the effete and ineffectual Lord Cassidy, Oliver Jackson-Cohen is practically unrecognizable, offering a complete contrast from his performances of intimidating masculine presence in the horror genre. While he’s too overshadowed by Ashton to be a regarded as any kind of “revelation,” Mr. Malcolm’s List still marks a positive step in his career, demonstrating range outside of his usual sinister turns.
Where Mr Malcolm’s List may ultimately be memorable compared to its peers is in its thoroughly modern undertones. Beyond the contemporary sensibilities of its casting and the Bridgerton-inspired flourishes — a quite clearly borrowed voiceover and the now normalized vocabulary of Regency debutantes — the film draws distinct connections between the 21st-century dating scene, full of filters, criteria, and immediate judgments, and the borderline economical approach to marriage in the Regency era. It’s not a subtle subtext, but it is an astute and relevant one, particularly in comparison to the decidedly dated narratives and Mills & Boon bodice-ripper gender roles of the sub-genre, even if the film’s romance could perhaps do with some of its peers’ more adventurous qualities.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — July 2022.