Austen-era plans, dreams fill ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List
“It is a universally acknowledged truth,” says one of English literature’s most famous opening lines, “that a single man in possession of good fortune must have need of a wife.”
It’s Jane Austen, beginning her 1813 “Pride and Prejudice.” Austen herself has nothing to do with “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” the clever, entertaining, delightfully pretty new film starring Freida Pinto — but also with everything. It was our collective thirst for such Regency-era “comedies of manners”, examining the intense matchmaking activity of a certain level of British society, which gave rise to this, to “Bridgerton” of the television, to the 2020 “Emma” adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and other films too numerous to name.
Of course, you might wonder, in a time of such turmoil in the world, what did the upper-class romantic machinations of the 19th century have to do with, well, anything? To which we say: Anything! Bring it on. Distract us with your pretty dresses that pop straight off the chest, your lovely feathered bonnets, your country estate porn and your chic spread at the table. We could do much worse.
There’s a key element in which “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” a tale of love, friendship, and revenge served on a china plate, diverges from earlier Regency-era comedies (but aligns with ” Bridgerton”): its diverse cast. Director Emma Holly Jones, working from a screenplay (and novel) by Suzanne Allain, said she was inspired by Broadway’s “Hamilton,” in which famous characters from American history are interpreted by a non-white cast.
Here, the cast is led by British-Nigerian actor Sopé Dìrísù as the titular Mr. Malcolm, Zawe Ashton as the scheming Julia, and Pinto as the noble Selina, who serves as a reluctant pawn in this triangular tale. All three are great, but Ashton is particularly compelling – to be fair, she gets the meatiest role by far, and it’s always better to play complicated than noble (although sometimes Julia veers dangerously into downright average). The supporting roles are ably filled, especially by a handsome Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the best friend as Julia’s cousin, and a ridiculously dashing Theo James as the ridiculously dashing captain.
But let’s talk about marriage, shall we?
Because marriage is the only goal here – and everyone knows that, even the childish versions of Julia and Selina, who we meet at boarding school in a brief prelude. Selina, the daughter of a country vicar, realizes that she has few means to offer to a possible husband. Julia, always pragmatic, promises that she will find a companion in Selina – once her own marriage is secured.
Sixteen years later, we are in 1818 in London and Julia is on the hunt. She manages to land a date with wealthy Jeremy Malcolm, the most eligible bachelor in town. But at the opera, he tests his knowledge. She doesn’t know anything about opera, nor can she answer his question about the Corn Laws. He yawns, a development noticed through the theater in a club, where other young girls mock that after four unsuccessful “seasons” in the marriage market, Julia really should retire.
Things go really bad for Julia when a comic sketch or unflattering caricature circulates in the press – a kind of Regency-era social media diss – showing her rejected by Jeremy. “I’m ruined,” she laments. She consults her cousin Cassidy, who is friends with Jeremy, and hints that the wealthy bachelor has a real list of qualifications for a possible bride.
Increasingly humbled, Julia hatches a plan: She will groom a candidate willing to meet all of Jeremy’s qualifications, then, once he’s ready to propose, give the snobby man a taste of his own. medicine.
Enter Selina, who is beautiful and smart if not wealthy. Julia brings him for an extended stay in London. Reluctantly, Selina agrees to the scheme, but soon discovers that Jeremy is not the insufferable snob Julia described. In fact, he’s a gentle, caring man, rightly wary of fortune-seeking schemers (much like Julia).
What should the daughter of a poor curate do? Obviously, as the couple slowly fall in love, there will be tears, missed signals, and misunderstandings.
There will also be strolls in immaculate gardens, cups of tea consumed in delightfully appointed lounges, parties and dancing. Also, a costume ball! Once we hear that, we know there’s going to be an identity mix of vast proportions – and some really great clothes.
But in an austenist world, the matches eventually happen, of course. No one is left behind – everyone has a spouse, as Oprah might say! Even the fun and dry footman (Divian Ladwa) finds his match, as we learn in an end credits sequence well worth listening to.
It’s almost enough to make you forget that in the 21st century, getting married is not the panacea presented here. But whatever. It’s 1818, and it’s certainly relaxing to visit a time when things WERE so simple – at least, in the scripts. What peace to spend two hours knowing absolutely, to paraphrase an English writer of another era, that all will be well that ends well.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List”, a Bleecker Street release, was rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “a bit of smoking and mild language”. Duration: 115 minutes. Three out of four stars.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested, some content may not be suitable for children.