Mr. Malcolm’s List: a frothy period-comedy

Emma Holly Jones’s feature debut passes as a veiled portrait of multicultural Britain; though the performances are uneven, the sheer diversity of the cast in a sub-Austenian setting never feels distracting.

26 August 2022

By Graham Fuller

Sope Dìrísù and Freida Pinto in Mr. Malcolm’s List (2022)
Sight and Sound

The colour-blind casting of British period films and TV series, including Bridgerton (2020–) and the recent Persuasion (2022), should be applauded for increasing the visibility of Black and Asian actors. There can be a disconnect, however, in having them speak sub-Austenian dialogue and affect the posh manners and privileged lifestyles of echelons that did not admit their forebears. Endowing such actors with trappings of elitism often feels like an awkward attempt to atone for the social exclusion, and worse, of ethnic minorities in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The new Regency romp Mr. Malcolm’s List, director Emma Holly Jones’s feature debut, doesn’t attempt to side-step this modern period-comedy formula. Yet, as with Armando Iannucci’s Dickens adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield, its colour-blind casting never feels distracting, thanks to its rhythmic storytelling and an engaging portrayal – by Freida Pinto – of a lower middle-class figure struggling against the unscrupulousness and egoism of higher-class acquaintances.

Adapted by Suzanne Allain from her peppy self-published 2009 novel, the source of Jones’ 2011 short of the same name, the film is a feminist-lite takedown of ‘catch of the season’ Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dìrísù), a rich heir so arrogant he’ll only pick a bride who satisfies the high-minded criteria he has listed on a private document.

His antagonist, Julia Thistlethwaite (Zawe Ashton), is another obnoxiously self-entitled character. Anxious to find a husband four years after her society debut, Julia accompanies Malcolm to a performance of The Barber of Seville but her ignorant answers to his questions about the Corn Laws and Rossini elicit his sneers. Julia’s hubristic attempt to avenge herself by inveigling her friend Selina Dalton (Pinto) into giving him a dose of his own medicine goes awry as Selina sympathetically asserts herself and catches Malcom’s eye.

Jones was afforded sumptuous production values, though successive opulent houses, ballrooms and gardens feel more like window dressing than a lived-in environment that reflects Malcolm’s or Selina’s psyche. A horse auction scene, which unaccountably elicits cinematographer Tony Miller’s most elaborate shot, underscores Malcolm’s approach to acquiring a bride, but the metaphor is hammered home.

Though Malcolm gradually learns the error of his ways, having spent much of the film in a supercilious funk, his redemption is unedifying; Dìrísù renders Malcolm’s apologies as grudging concessions. Meanwhile, Ashton’s broad comic turn jars against Pinto’s restrained performance as Selina. Aside from Malcolm’s shrewd widowed mother (Doña Croll), only Selina – who’s capable of exhibiting controlled anger – preserves her dignity in a film that just about passes as a veiled portrait of multicultural Britain.

► Mr. Malcolm’s List is in UK cinemas now.

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