Mr Malcolm’s List
Director: Emma Holly Jones
Cast: Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu, Theo James, Zawe Ashton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Release Date: August 26
In the 19th Century, a person suffering from issues of mental health was typically placed under one of two categories. Either they were classified as a lunatic or an idiot.
Idiocy referred to those whose conditions were innate. Lunacy, on the other hand, applied to those once believed to be of sound mind or memory, and as the name suggests, this state was triggered by factors external to themselves.
Their insanity could be the result of a traumatic event, societal pressures, or in the very literal sense, a full moon. In the case of Mr. Malcolm’s List, a Regency-era romantic comedy and the directorial debut from Emma Holly Jones, the cause is gossip, endless and deafening gossip.
Set in 1818, Jones’s adaptation of Suzanne Allain’s 2020 novel, is concerned with the members of “good society” who, in their quest to find love, are rendered insane by their inability to tune out the mutterings of their peers. “It’s what people say that matters,” is the central lie that too many of the protagonists subscribe to, and if they cannot shun that thought, they are destined to hear only loveless wedding bells.
The plot begins after one Lady Julia Thistlewaite (played by Zawe Ashton) is rejected by the titular Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a wealthy suitor with a reputation as a trifler. Thistlewaite is laden with insecurities and desperate to convey an image of pure excellence.
Naturally, when her failure to steal Mr. Malcolm’s heart is mocked in a newspaper, she is distraught. The situation is then only exacerbated when she learns that Mr. Malcolm judges all women against a very particular set of standards, contained in a secret list.
Vowing revenge, Thistlewaite decides to give Mr. Malcolm a taste of his own medicine. She concocts a scheme in which he will fall in love with a woman as immaculate as she is fictitious. To do so, Thistlewaite reconnects with a childhood friend, Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto), whom she believes to be the ideal candidate.
Dalton is a clergyman’s daughter. She has spent years caring for an elderly woman. She is intelligent, thoughtful and fiercely independent. Unsurprisingly, she is also hesitant to go along with this plot, and her reluctance only increases as she falls for Mr. Malcolm, believing him to be kinder than his reputation suggests.
Mr. Malcolm’s List is, in essence, a charming and light-hearted reimagining of the revenge rom-com. It teems with cliches, both from this and the Regency romance genre. The women are swept off their feet at evening balls and first encounters occur in moonlight-soaked gardens.
What keeps this from the cheesy romantic landfill though is Jones’ ability to successfully tweak the formula ever so slightly. The villain of the story is a nebulous entity. It is the faceless whispers of “good society.” This chatter is pushed to the foreground, seeming first to be both wooden and merely an excuse to deliver exposition.
Upon closer inspection, this dialogue begins to resemble the paranoid internal monologues of characters such as Thistlewaite and Mr. Malcolm. If it sounds artificial, that is because it genuinely is, and the characters need to accept that fact.
Mr. Malcolm’s List doesn’t break new ground, nor does it stray entirely from its predictable outcome. Still, to Jones’ credit, through such imaginative touches, it defends her from any criticisms that this is a shallow, romantic flick. Her debut is a witty piece of work that is saccharine without being thoughtless.
Words: Michael Lanigan
Ilustration: Jess Dunne