It’s 1818, and “the season” is in full swing in upper-crust London. High society’s “ton” is out in full force, swanning their way through balls, operas, suppers, teas, strolls around both large and small bodies of water, and even the odd horse sale, all in service to one principal aim: capturing a spouse, and hopefully one with plenty of money to their aristocratic name. But one society lady continues to strike out, and as she enters her fifth season (her fifth! cue the bosom-clutching!) without snagging a suitable husband, things are getting mighty desperate. Soon enough, they’ll even get downright mean.
First-time feature filmmaker Emma Holly Jones spins a lush, lavish, and quite frisky tale with her “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” presenting a fresh twist on the Regency Era rom-com that has kept author Jane Austen such a hot commodity for so long. Jones, however, makes nearly as many missteps along the way (said mean streak, predictable plotting, and a conclusion that feels far too pat) as she does smart choices (delightful casting, wicked humor, and some genuine chemistry), keeping the film from reaching the upper echelon of this charming sub-genre. But, hey, when did the course of true love ever run smooth?
Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) may be rich, pretty, and connected, but there’s a reason why she’s sputtered out over the course of five seasons with nary a husband to show for it: she’s also silly, stupid, and downright mean. Ashton is so compelling and charismatic, however, that the actress’ zippy performance is often able to paper over those problems, which makes the film’s stinging final act feel even more out of place. Julia’s search for a husband has led her to Mr. Jeremiah Malcolm (an also-charming Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), this season’s hottest eligible bachelor. But the serious Malcolm doesn’t quite vibe to Julia after a single, ill-fated date to the opera — let’s just say, he’s looking for someone with a brain, and when Julia flops at political chatter, it’s all over for her — but when Julia’s latest failure becomes the subject of a mean-spirited caricature circulated among London’s brass, her embarrassment takes on a totally new cast.
Basically, Julia wants revenge, or at least the chance to buff up her reputation (particularly if it means tarnishing Malcolm’s in the process). When her dim-witted cousin Lord Cassidy (an outrageously funny and well-cast Oliver Jackson-Cohen) discovers that Malcolm has cooked up a list of the traits he’d like his future wife to have (and that Julia very, very much does not meet his requirements), she sees an in. That Mr. Malcolm would have a list of needs for his bride is so shocking to Julia’s sensibilities (read: really, it makes sense that someone would have expectations for the person they’re meant to spend their life with, and Julia is just looking for any notch in his armor to exploit out of her own embarrassment) that she simply must act.
Suddenly, an idea: She’ll scheme and manipulate a way for Malcolm to meet a seemingly perfect young lady, who will then viciously pull the rug out from underneath him, revealing that it’s Malcolm who is, in fact, not up to snuff. The young lady in question? Julia’s delightful (and crushingly poor!) childhood pal Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto), who opts to go along with the scheme because, uh, well, let’s not worry about that particular element for too long. Scheming, petty, and vicious Julia still holds sway over her sweet, lower-class friend, and while it’s fairly obvious how this will all turn out, at least the road there is littered with lovely, funny diversions.
Jones’ “color-conscious” bent is refreshing and joins a recent, welcome trend (see: “Bridgerton,” “Anne Boleyn,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” or Netflix’s upcoming “Persuasion” adaptation) that offers rising stars the chance to make classic roles very much their own. Ashton is almost too charming for her own good, Jackson-Cohen is a total scream, and Pinto and Dìrísù exhibit crackling chemistry. That’s why it hurts so much when the story gets too tart, too mean, too back-stabbing — and predictable to boot.
But it is something different, with a fun genesis story to go along with it: Suzanne Allain self-published her novel in 2009, before adapting it into a script that landed on The Black List. Jones discovered it after the organization turned a script reading into a podcast in 2015, eventually snapping up the rights and offering a frisky teaser in the form of a short film, which was released online in 2019. By 2020, Allain’s novel was published by Berkley Press, Jones’ feature notched more financial backing, and the entire affair was turned into a feature that was shot in early 2021.
Jane Austen doesn’t hold the monopoly on Regency Era rom-coms, and nor should she. Jones and Allain’s vision of how we might reinterpret this sort of story for the big screen — including assembling a cast of people who are charming to watch, full stop — is both vital and delightful, and if it has some kinks to it, perhaps that’s just the price of trying something new. Mr. Malcolm learned the hard way that a prescribed list will never get him what he needs, perhaps this particular sub-genre of stories needs to discover the same thing.
Bleecker Street will release “Mr. Malcolm’s List” in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 1.