Some critics might say that there’s been a resurgence of period dramas of late, but as a fan of the genre, I really think there’s always a healthy appetite for it. I mean, Julian Fellowes certainly has been able to bottle it with the continued success of Downton Abbey, there’s of course Bridgerton that has courted Gen Z with its diverse cast and Netflix is doing a more modern Jane Austen’s Persuasion coming later this month.
Many films of this genre are based on a book and Mr. Malcolm’s List is no different. Based on a novel by Suzanne Allain who also penned the screenplay, it’s been a longtime passion project of director/producer Emma Holly Jones. In fact, she made a short film via Refinery 29 with Gemma Chan in Zawe Ashton’s role, as a proof of concept and went on a 7-year journey to make the full feature. In many ways, I find the whole filmmaking effort quite inspiring as I have embarked on a similar journey of my own in trying to turn my romantic drama short film Hearts Want into a full feature.
The story is undoubtedly Austen-esque, the vibe is more of a rom-com in the vein of Emma, mixed with Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband as most of the movie is a ruse to deceive the protagonist. The ‘love across class divide’ plot certainly reminds me of Pride and Prejudice. Sope Dirisu plays the biggest catch of the season, Jeremy Malcolm, the younger son of an Earl. As Jane Austen would say, ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.‘ I mean, Mr. Darcy himself has a similar ‘list’ of what he deems as an accomplished woman–’a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,’ among others–but Malcolm’s list is decidedly more descriptive that pertain to one’s character.
At the start of the film, Mr. Malcolm is seen to be accompanying the wealthy Lady Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) to the opera. After a series of conversations, it’s apparent that Julia fails to meet one of his long-list of requirements for a perfect match. Her reputation is further tarnished when an unflattering caricature gets circulated amongst her circle, which isn’t necessarily Mr. Malcolm’s doing. Regardless, Julia blames Mr. Malcolm for not only rejecting her but also ruining her romantic prospects. She demands ‘poetic justice’ and is set on revenge. She enlists the help of friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), the daughter of a clergyman in her charade, and her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who happens to be Mr. Malcolm’s personal friend.
The first thing one notices in Mr Malcolm’s List is the diverse cast. Even after seeing more performers of color depicted in Bridgerton and Sanditon, it’s still a rarity to see two leads of color in a romance set in 19th Century England. As an ardent Janeite (that is Jane Austen fan) of color, it’s delightful to see people who look like me being depicted in my favorite genre. But as I’ve mentioned plenty of times in my blog, inclusive casting alone doesn’t automatically make a good movie. At the end of the day, the script, direction, and performances have to align perfectly for a movie to work. If I were to have a list of requirements for a ‘cinematic match,’ I’d say this movie meets some but definitely not all.
Let’s start with the positives… Apparently, the filmmaker was named after a popular Austen character and a self-described period drama fan and it shows. There are plenty of elements one expects in a period piece–the serendipitous first-meet in an Orangery, letter writing/reading, easy-on-the-eyes men on horseback, a festive masquerade ball, willful misunderstandings, romantic declarations–this movie ticks lots of the boxes in that regard.
The mostly-British ensemble cast is definitely a plus, not only for ticking the diversity-and-inclusion box, but because they’re oh-so-talented and have wonderful chemistry together. I’m glad that Jones insisted on keeping Dirisu as the male lead, I’ve seen him in Mothering Sunday and he certainly has that regal, confident good looks required as an aristocrat… definitely the tall, black and handsome lead I’d love to see more of. Freida Pinto is the more well-known actor who also serves as an executive producer and I quite like her as the strong-willed Selina.
Though billed as a supporting character, Zawe Ashton’s Julia has quite a lot of screen time despite being in a supporting role, and that’s the better for it as she’s got the comedic chops and screen presence. She also manages to make Julia more likable than she might’ve been on the page given her petulant temperament. The way she bullies her cousin Lord Cassidy is quite amusing, and on that note, I kind of wish Oliver Jackson-Cohen has a bigger part in the movie. The one character I’m not too fond of is Mrs. Covington (Ashley Park) which I understand is written as a caricature of a silly, pesky relative, but all her scenes really made me squirm.
Now, I’ve never read the book it’s based on, but judging from the script, I’d say the cast elevates the source material. I’d say it’s Austen-lite in that the story isn’t quite as deep nor profound as most Austen novel which is more character-driven and offers such an astute commentary on the society they engage in. Allain’s characters seem to be very surface level so none of them leave a lasting impression to me. One of the main issues I have is that it’s never clear why the seemingly-virtuous Selina agrees to be a part of Julia’s mean-spirited lark, even after she meets Malcolm and develops feelings for him. The twist involving Theo James’ captain Henry Ossory’s change of heart also feels entirely too convenient. Lastly, the main romance itself never quite reaches the highs of most period dramas and overall leaves me wanting despite the swoon-worthy finale.
That said, this is a pretty admirable first-feature effort that’s done with love and care. The on-set locations are beautiful to look at even though for some reason the projector at the Emagine cinema was a bit too dark and not as sharp as I expected. I mean, the short film on YouTube looks much brighter and well-lit, so I definitely want to rewatch it once it hits streaming. The score by Amelia Warner is quite lovely, as are the costumes by Pam Downe.
Despite my quibbles, I am glad that I saw this on the big screen. Mr. Malcolm’s List has plenty to offer to period drama fans and seeing it with my best friend who loves this genre as much as I did is especially delightful. As much as I love my period drama classics (Austens, Brontës, etc.), I absolutely welcome more female-driven original voices in this genre.
Did you see Mr. Malcolm’s List? Well, what did you think?