The year is 1818, and in London society, the most eligible bachelor is Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). He is an astute young man who has prepared a list of qualifications to determine which young lady of the season is the best match for him. Determined to be unfazed by flirtatious tricks, Mr. Malcolm adheres to this list in an absolute sense, which has inadvertently left a trail of broken hearts, sometimes scorned ones. Enter Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton). Like many young ladies, Julia hopes to find a suitable match to meet her normal standards, but she is not as meticulous or ruthless as Mr. Malcolm. When she loses his favour, London society opts–as they usually do–to ruin her reputation. With the aid of her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Julia enlists the help of childhood friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) to craft her into Mr. Malcolm’s ideal woman, only to pull the rug from under him at the last possible moment. But with most hijinks that involve matters of the heart, this elaborate scheme will surely backfire.
Suzanne Allain’s story is a breath of fresh air, but it is even more so with Emma Holly Jones’ commitment to inclusive storytelling and diversity. This Regency-era story is not beholden to “historical accuracy”; instead, it aims to bring the elements of a most beloved genre to a modern and diverse audience. However, unlike mega-hit Bridgerton, neither Allain’s script nor Jones’ directing contort itself to justify why or how the Yoruba Mr. Malcolm is amongst England’s high society. It is simply an alternate reality, a fantasy if you will, that doesn’t make a fuss about its casting choices. The characters simply exist as they would had they been played by white actors. On the other hand, we have a tale driven by two independent, charismatic, and diametrically opposing women.
While Dìrísù is the titular lead, the film, by far, in a way belongs to Ashton’s Julia and Pinto’s Selina. While it is seemingly impossible to understand how these different people can be lifelong friends, the film navigates this dynamic relationship with the sort of care and time a romantic relationship would have. However, Julia is the heart of the film as she is not only a third protagonist; she is the catalyst for much of the story and has an independent narrative thread that runs alongside Mr. Malcolm (Jeremy) and Selina’s courtship. Ultimately, Mr. Malcolm’s List is about the women and how they navigate the social morays of English society.
To portray such a fun, complicated, messy friendship, and by extension, a profoundly moving romantic one between Selina and Jeremy, and Julia and her surprise suitor, the casting of Julia and Selina had to be perfect. Pinto is dazzling as the typical Austen-esque heroine. She rides the line between a traditional protagonist in a Regency-era romance and a modern one akin to the ladies of Bridgerton. Pinto navigates every aspect of Selina gracefully, without losing a sense of how honourable and steadfast the character is. Unlike Julia and Jeremy, Selina’s character growth is minimal because she is already so sure of herself and is not longing for anything beyond companionship. A character like that can be challenging to make enjoyable, but Pinto is given the gift of engaging with an array of characters with unique quirks that help showcase how vibrant she is.
Ashton’s Julia, on the other hand, is a wild card. She is what I would describe as an Emma gone awry. While Ashley Park’s Mrs. Covington is a traditional comical caricature, it is Ashton’s deft hand at comedy that will have you roaring with laughter. Julia is a few Austen archetypes rolled into one. Still, Allain and Jones do more for her by giving Julia an entire arch that unpacks the complicated feelings one has with being embarrassed but that sense of uncertainty and fear that comes with searching for a mate. These things can drive any sane person mad, but it is also the perfect alchemy to turn the distinctive Julia into a hilarious protagonist that someone can actually root for (and sometimes against, but only briefly). To say that Ashton stole the show would be an understatement.
As for our titular lead, well, let’s just say we Regency romance fans have indeed been blessed. Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù is all that you can want in a dashing, debonair romantic lead, but Dìrísù imbues his character with a level of warmth and depth that is rarely offered to such leads. Dìrísù effortlessly maneuvers the many aspects of Jeremy that make him a prickly sort of man and an endearing wide-eyed romantic. He never balks from the challenge of portraying the more sensitive side of such a complex man. Simply put, Dìrísù is perfect in every way. As for our other gentlemen, Oliver Jackson-Cohen provides many hearty laughs as Juila’s cousin, confidant, and reluctant accomplice. While Theo James’ Captain Henry Ossory is a fun red-herring that takes a pleasant and unexpected turn that helps balance the ensemble.
Now that I have exhausted you with praising the cast of Mr. Malcolm’s List, it is time to turn to the film as a whole. From the beginning, when Jones filmed her 10-minute adaptation of the then self-published book, it was clear that there was something special about this story, especially her vision. Amma Asante’s Belle broke barriers by showing the audience that an actress like Gugu Mbatha-Raw could lead a period drama romance. Netflix’s adaptation of Bridgerton showed us that the rigid adherence to historical accuracy is often ahistorical and whitewashed, depriving diverse audiences of the opportunity to see themselves in a cherished genre. However, many historical dramas featuring non-white leads are often drowned by a sea of whiteness surrounding them, which Jones fought so fiercely against. And it pays off. This is a fun and inviting fantasy that doesn’t hold back in any way.
What makes Mr. Malcolm’s List so joyous is that Jones treats the ensemble of characters like a sitcom cast. There are our central, straight-laced leads who primarily provide the earnest drama, and then the collective of odd-balls and distinctive characters surround them. Each has a particular purpose while being a fully realized individual. Furthermore, the film is perfectly orchestrated to maximize the impact of every one of them. It would have been enough to have every character offer a fraction of what they do and still enjoy the regal fashion, brilliant set dressings, and production design. However, it is clear that Jones is someone who wanted every aspect to sparkle on screen. There is kinetic energy that threads each scene together, and with the characters constantly intermingling, the story becomes richer and more lively.
Jones not only assembled a brilliant cast but also had a crew of experts that helped bring Allain’s fun romp and Jones’ gallant vision to life. From Amelia Warner’s whimsical and romantic score to Tony Miller’s handsome cinematography to Ray Ball’s dynamic production design, each department of this film aimed for excellence and met that goal. Each frame is eye-catching in its own way, with beautiful people wearing beautiful costumes and standing in beautiful settings. Every moment is utterly enchanting.
Mr. Malcolm’s List is a perfectly orchestrated Regency romp that will have you smiling from ear to ear, your heart swelling with joy and your sides in pain from laughter. It is my cup of tea and hopefully will be yours, too.
Mr. Malcolm’s List opens in theatres on July 1