Mr. Malcolm’s List

It is London’s 1818 season and Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton, "Velvet Buzzsaw"), in her fourth round in the marriage market, is thrilled to be at the opera with this year’s most eligible bachelor (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, "His House," AMC's 'Gangs of London').  Her view of his gracious response to her lack of knowledge about the opera’s author will turn to fury when she learns he has not only rejected her as a prospective wife, but has done so because she lacked the essential requirement of stimulating conversation and she enlists childhood friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto, "Slumdog Millionaire"), a country woman of no means, to hoax “Mr. Malcolm’s List.”

Laura's Review: B-

Director Emma Holly Jones makes her feature debut expanding her own 2018 short from Suzanne Allain’s adaptation of her own novel, itself an expansion of what was originally a short story set in the present day.  “Mr. Malcolm’s List” feels extremely familiar throughout, like a cross between Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and an inverted ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ yet while I strained to resist the story’s predictability, it was impossible not to be won over by the cast.  (It should be noted that this casting is so diverse that the mother of Julia, who is played by an actress with a Ugandan mother and English father, is played by Japanese actress Naoko Mori ("Everest"), something which can be a bit confusing initially, but which is soon forgotten as the characters are so well drawn.)

While Julia is in London learning from her cousin, Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, "The Lost Daughter"), about Mr. Malcolm’s list, Selina is fending off the unwanted proposal of a much older gentleman at home.  Once in London, she will meet Mr. Malcolm not as part of Julia’s plot, but naturally, in the orangerie outside of a ballroom where sparks fly before his identity is known.  Meanwhile Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James, "Divergent") arrives on the scene, having been advised by his aunt that her former companion, Selina, might be his perfect match.  That he instead seems intrigued by Julia signals just how everything will fall into place, despite Julia’s single-minded focus on humiliating Malcolm (which itself will become the dishonesty obstacle facing Malcolm and Selina, a romcom trope).

The locations are sumptuous, the costumes Regency perfect, the score a buoyant waltz.  But it is the players who are the thing here.  Pinto is the perfect romantic heroine, ladylike but of fierce intelligence, whose Selina is a woman of her own mind, one who quickly realizes Mr. Malcolm is nothing like what Julia has painted.  Ashton has a more difficult path and walks it perfectly, her vengeful schemer humorous and always likable.  She sparks with James, the two forming an amused pair of observers of the social scene.  But it is Dìrísù who impresses most, the actor creating a swoon-worthy romantic lead.  His rise from playing an African immigrant in an independent British horror film to the lead in a television series about brutal gangsters and now this illustrates an impressive range.  Supporting characters add spice, Mori’s priceless facial expressions contrasted with the assured wisdom of Doña Croll (“Eastern Promises”) as Malcolm’s mother.  Comic relief is offered by Divian Ladwa ("Ant-Man and the Wasp") as Julia’s footman John and Ashley Park (Netflix's 'Emily in Paris') as Selina’s Gertie Covington, a gauche chatterbox who challenges one of Malcolm’s checkboxes.

“Mr. Malcolm’s List” may go down a well-worn path, but everyone involved makes it a pleasant jaunt.

Robin's Review: B

Bleecker Street releases “Mr. Malcolm’s List” in theaters on Friday, July 1.