Mr. Malcolm’s List  (PG) Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Emma Holly Jones, US 2022, 118 mins

Cast:  Freida Pinto, Zawe Ashton, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù

Review by Carol Allen

Mr. Malcolm’s List is a Jane Austen style pastiche set in a fairy tale version of the early 19th century in which a large proportion of the people in well heeled society are of non-white origin.  Maybe the film’s makers were also casting a beady eye at the success of the racially diverse cast television serial Bridgerton, which had the same setting.

Like Austen’s heroines, Julia (Zawe Ashton) is in search of that “single man in possession of a good fortune (who) must be in want of a wife.”  So when London’s most eligible bachelor, the Honourable Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), invites her to the opera, she is over the moon.  Not so though when he drops her like a hot potato after that first date. 

 Publicly humiliated, she discovers that Malcolm has a list of qualities he considers essential for his potential bride and she didn’t live up to them.  With the help of her amiable cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who gets hold of a copy of the list, Julia persuades her childhood friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) to pose as Mr. Malcolm’s perfect match by meeting all the requirements of his list and then to humiliate him once she has snared her prey.  The plan goes a bit awry however when Selina and Mr. M become genuinely attracted to each other.  And so the mating game dance continues in traditional Austen-lite fashion.

In terms of costumes and settings, all is suitably lavish.  Pinto is pretty and principled as the heroine, Ashton suitably somewhat mannered as her scheming friend, Jackson likeable as the cousin and Theo James also likeable as the army captain, who comes to town to court Selina and ends up falling for Julia. 

The outcome is of course predictable, though Mr. Malcolm (he is apparently only ”Mister” because his elder brother, whom we never see, has the title) is such an arrogant, vain and emotionally retarded character that he makes Mr. D’Arcy seem like the ideal husband – though to be fair to Dìrísù, he does manage to inject some measure of charm into the man.

There is one character however in this fictional tale, whose real life counterpart would almost certainly have existed and that is John the footman (Divian Ladwa).  As one who only serves and waits, he has little to say but his expressive face speaks volumes about the daft antics of his so-called “betters”.  And there’s a sweet though underexplored subplot about his romance with one of the maids. 

The film’s costume designer Pam Downe claims to have found a number of paintings of black men in society, when doing her research.  Their stories and how society treated them, along with those of characters like John and his wife, would perhaps make a more interesting and valid contribution to black history than ersatz Austen