Even when a film or show isn’t directly adapted by Jane Austen, the genre of regency-era romances will never escape the comparisons – and Mr. Malcolm’s List is undeniably extremely similar in terms of its bare bones plot and characters; whether its between the fast-paced dialogue or the will they/won’t they-isms on display, it less-so takes from Austen but feels like an embrace of everything people love about her stories. However, this isn’t to say that Mr. Malcolm’s List is entirely without originality – there’s a bit of a snark to it and it doesn’t feel like it’s closely following every single beat that you’d come to expect. In some sequences, it embraces the cliches. In others? It completely takes its own path and tells its own story.
The film follows Julia (Zawe Ashton) who courts Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a well-mannered suitor who is positively handsome, charming, mysterious, etc. – all of this seems ripe for what Julia is looking for, except for the fact that Malcolm has a list of irks that most women fail to not earn a checkmark on. The more you learn about the list, the more that it becomes apparent how artificial and unfair these standards are – which is one of the many common tropes of regency-era romances that are tackled in this film. Upon learning of this list and how Malcolm used it as a means of rejecting her, Julia is infuriated and in attempt to get revenge upon Mr. Malcolm she recruits her friend Selina (Freida Pinto) to trick Malcolm into believing he’s met the one due to Julia and Selina knowing everything on his list/what he is looking for in a woman.
This plot could easily be a very contrived and cliche-filled story, but Suzzane Allain (who both wrote this adaptation and the book it’s inspired by) mostly avoids the more obvious and eye-rolling cliches. A lot of this feels like commentary and admiration of what we’ve become accustomed to, but it also makes every character here feel a bit fresher than you’d expect. While it’s largely a revenge story, no one is entirely innocent or evil – every character has very interesting quirks to them that make them unique from one-another, and therefor the relationships feel all the more unique and easy to become emotionally invested in.
There’s a small bit of Mr. Malcolm’s List where I thought it was going on a bit too long due to the intricate plot overstaying its welcome a bit too long in some areas, but luckily the wonderfully diverse and genuinely funny, charming cast help elevate the already solid material and beautiful production-design into what is simply delightful. This is a story that feels truly original while also delivering the goods from what fans of the genre can come to expect when searching for this type of story. It’s not exactly treading entirely new-waters here, but it is subversive and entertaining enough to make it a worthwhile viewing that anyone could enjoy.