Mr. Malcolm’s List (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little romantic scheme against his list

“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a witty and charming variation of Jane Austen novels with some modern touches a la recent Netflix TV series “Bridgerton”. While often reminiscent of Austen’s several novels including, yes, “Pride and Prejudice”, the movie has a number of various colored performers playing the 19th British upper-class characters, and that certainly brings some fresh qualities to its familiar story and characters.

Everything in the story begins from when Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) attempts to win the heart of Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), who has been as one of the most eligible bachelors in London, 1818 thanks to his considerable social status and wealth. She and Mr. Malcolm come to attend an opera performance together for one evening, and she tries her best for drawing more attention and affection from him, but, alas, she does not look good enough to him, and, to make the matters worse, she later becomes a laughingstock in the town due to his casual rejection.

Quite furious and humiliated, Julia comes to develop a little naughty scheme when her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) later tells her that Mr. Malcolm has a certain personal list which has been the lofty standard for his future spouse. She enlists in her best friend Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto), and Selina agrees to help Julia getting her revenge even though she is not quite sure about whether she can actually look good enough for Mr. Malcolm and his haughty standard.

Of course, after some preparation in advance, Selina looks a bit more charming, elegant, and sophisticated than usual, and she soon comes to draw Mr. Malcolm’s attention when they come across each other by a little ‘coincidence’. As she seems to pass all of requirements of his list one by one, he becomes attracted to her more than ever, and she finds herself becoming more conflicted as she is also fallen in love with him.

Meanwhile, the screenplay by Suzanne Allain, which is based on her novel of the same name, juggles several colorful supporting characters around Mr. Malcolm and Selina. Julia and Lord Cassidy frequently amuse us as they continue to work on their little scheme, and we also get extra amusement when Selina’s family friend, who is incidentally your average merry widow, makes a brief but boisterous appearance later in the story. Although she already lost two husbands, this ebullient lady is ready for her third husband, and she is certainly delighted to meet Mr. Malcolm via Selina.

My personal favourite character is Lady Kilbourne (Dona Croll), the no-nonsense mother of Mr. Malcolm. Right from when Selina is introduced to her via her son, she immediately discerns that Selina is the right one for her dear son, and she indirectly supports the courtship between Selina and her son without saying anything direct in her dignified appearance.

In the end, there eventually comes a point where Julia and Selina’s scheme is revealed in front of Mr. Malcolm (Is this a spoiler?). The movie naturally comes to stumble a little as losing its lightweight sense of fun to some degree after that, but it is still buoyed by its likable main characters who come to show more of their feelings along the story. While Mr. Malcolm certainly comes to realize how much he has been afraid of true feelings, both Celina and Julia also become more honest about their respective emotions, and there is a little poignant moment when Julia comes to see that she is not actually as vengeful as she thought at first.

Above all, the movie is supported well by the good chemistry between Frieda Pinto and Sope Dirisu. Although it has been 15 years since she drew our attention for the first time via her breakthrough supporting turn in “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), Pinto remains plucky and beautiful as before, and she effortlessly slips into the period background of the movie as bringing enough spirit and personality to her archetype character. On the opposite, Dirisu, who has rose to considerable prominence since his memorable performance in acclaimed Netflix film “His House” (2020), is more reserved and passive in comparison, but he steadily builds up his character’s drama to the point where his character finally becomes more active than before.

Around Pinto and Dirisu, director/co-producer Emma Holly Jones assembles a bunch of good performers, most of whom incidentally draw our attention for their color-blind casting first and then delight us more with their fine comic performances. While Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Zawe Ashton have the most fun in the bunch, several other cast members including Theo James, Divian Ladwa, Naoko Mori, and Dona Croll are also solid in their respective supporting parts, and the special mention goes to Ashley Park, who virtually steals the show despite appearing just for a few minutes.

On the whole, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” works thanks to its good storytelling and entertaining performances, and it is certainly more engaging than recent Netflix film “Persuasion” (2022), which was also notable for its color-blind casting but was quite a disappointing adaptation of Austen’s novel of the same of name in many aspects. Unlike that underwhelming film, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” has enough wit and charm to be appreciated by anyone familiar with Austen’s novels, and I certainly recommend you to check it out instead.

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