Freida Pinto executive produces and stars in the Georgian era romance Mr. Malcolm’s List, based on the novel by Suzanne Allain (who also wrote the screenplay). The film has all the trappings of a mannered period drama, but it’s not as witty as it could be.
London, 1820s. Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) is aging out of her desirability as a marriage partner. She gets her hopes up when London’s most eligible bachelor Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) escorts her to the opera but is humiliated when he declines to ask her out again. She’s further incensed when her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) discovers that Mr. Malcolm has a list of requirements for a prospective bride, and that Julia was eliminated for being unable to hold an intelligent conversation.
Julia concocts a plan to trick Mr. Malcolm into falling in love with a seemingly ideal woman, only for the woman to produce a list of her own and dump him, paying back Julia’s humiliation in kind. Her childhood friend Selina Dalton (Pinto) — a pretty pastor’s daughter from the country, and an unknown in London society — is the perfect candidate for Julia’s scheme. Selina reluctantly agrees to help.
Upon her arrival in London, Selina is immediately beset by suitors. Besides Mr. Malcolm — whom Selina suspects is not the villain Julia believes him to be — handsome Captain Ossory (Theo James) also approaches her, fulfilling his late aunt’s wish for the two of them to meet. The attention paid to Selina doesn’t escape Julia’s notice, and she realizes her plan may not have been so brilliant after all.
Mr. Malcolm’s List meets most of the requirements for this kind of period romantic comedy drama. The costumes and sets are fancy. The actors are all good-looking. The dance at the masquerade ball is steamy, despite the fact that the participants’ physical contact is limited to holding hands. The plot unfolds at a good clip.
Yet the interactions between the characters leave a lot to be desired. Conversations lack a crisp back-and-forth exchange (2016’s Love & Friendship offers a good example of how it should be done). First-time director Emma Holly Jones and editor Kate Hickey leave too much dead air within conversations. Allain’s dialogue also needs punching up. Characters say obvious or straightforward things but react as though they’ve uttered something much more clever (Julia is especially guilty of this).
There’s also a character who exists as comic relief — Julia’s servant John (Divian Ladwa) — who never says or does anything funny enough to deserve the screentime he gets.
Mr. Malcolm’s List is not a stand-out in its genre, but it is a passably good example of it. The film’s shortcomings are less obvious once the plot really gets rolling.
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