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If you’re going to set out to write a movie that critics will call Jane Austen-esque, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Not only does your script have to hold its own against one of the sharpest, funniest writers England has ever produced, but the raft of previous movies based on (or inspired by) Austen’s works – from “Clueless” to “Emma” – are almost universally strong. You’ve got to know the tropes. You’ve got to know the tricks. And you’ve got to know the pitfalls. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” makes a valiant effort to live up to that tradition, and largely succeeds. It’s not the real deal, but this Regency-period English romance is an admirable imitation.
The main plot revolves, of course, around marriage. As the film gets underway, the hottest bachelor on the scene is Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), who’s like “Pride and Prejudice’s” Mr. Darcy, but somehow less cuddly. Mr. Malcolm is known for being rich, well-born and kind of a jerk, as evidenced by the titular list he’s compiled – a compendium of all the qualities he deems necessary in a wife. When a friend points out that maintaining something like that is a bit distasteful, Malcolm argues that he’s very picky about the horses he buys for his stable. Why should choosing a bride be any different?
One victim of the list is Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), who commits some minor errors while on a date with Malcolm at the opera. Thus ends her brief courtship. The incident, in her mind, subjects her to humiliation in front of all society. For revenge, she contacts Selina (Freida Pinto), a childhood friend from the country who lacks both cash and cachet. Julia makes Selina her pet project, transforming her into someone who ticks all the boxes on Malcolm’s infamous inventory, just so she can dump – and, in turn, humiliate – him. At first, Selina is happy to help. But as her feelings deepen for him, she begins to question whether the plot is worth the price.
Filmmaker Emma Holly Jones’s feature debut began life as a self-published 2009 novel by Suzanne Allain, who wrote a full screenplay (subsequently turned into a short online film, whose success led to a republication of the book by Penguin’s Berkley imprint). Allain’s script makes a valiant effort at Regency humor but often falls flat by just being too mean. Barbs aren’t thinly veiled here; they’re naked. That means that when characters are being snappish, they lack the charm that should keep us rooting for them. Unfortunately, it’s Julia who falls victim to this most often. While she could be an alluringly self-centered character, too many times she’s just cruel. It’s interesting to watch her motivations become more muddied, but she’s a lot to put up with: Is she looking for vengeance or justice? On the other hand, Pinto is a joy to watch as Selina stumbles her way into – and through – society. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, and her bafflement at some of the social mores is truly funny to watch. She eventually builds a nice chemistry with Dirisu, particularly in a lovely dance scene, but it would have been nice to have those sparks lit sooner.
Jones keeps things tight and moving briskly. The director is comfortable with comedy, never hitting the jokes too hard, and she makes good use of both the suffocating enclosed spaces and the wide-open moors that are the film’s primary settings. She also allows the narrative to stand on its own and make points about gender and class. It shows admirable strength to trust that one’s audience is going to understand what’s happening and refrain from shining a spotlight on your message.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” embraces its place in the Regency rom-com genre. It’s just a bit of a bummer that said genre has pretty much already been perfected. This is a movie that will inevitably be compared to other, better movies (oh, and “Bridgerton” – expect to see a lot of “Bridgerton” comparisons). Still, it’s like a knockoff handbag: It looks real enough, until you start examining internal zippers. Yes, it does the job almost as well as the original. It’s just missing a few details that could have made it a classic.
– – –
Three stars. Rated PG. At theaters. Contains some smoking and mildly crude language. 117 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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