“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a droll 19th century romantic comedy of manners that aims to bridge the considerable chasm that separates Jane Austen from Shonda Rhimes’ sexed-up TV period piece “Bridgerton.”
It’s just as dressy and genteel as Austen, with the color-blind casting that Rhimes brought to Empire bustlines, lords and ladies of the manor and visits to Bath “in season.”
And though Suzanne Allain’s script, adapted from her novel, is never as witty as Jane A.’s polished prose, nor as outrageous as Rhimes’ salacious 19th century follow-up to “Scandal,” it’s charming, and shows off some wonderful actors who’ve never had the chance to play dress-up with bodices, knee britches and elbow-length gloves.
The title character, played with a haughty air by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù (“TV’s “Gangs of London”), is one of those “20,000 a year” Austen suitors, “the biggest catch of the season” all the ladies of London gossip. All the eligible young women swoon at his dash, his carriage and Hadley Manor, which he stands to inherit. And Mr. Malcolm is making the social rounds, seeking a suitable bride.
But he’s got this checklist he’s confers, all the traits a young lady must possess for him to consider her as matrimony material.
She must be good at “conversing in a sensible fashion,” “handsome of countenance and figure,” “graceful and well-mannered,” someone who “educates herself by extensive reading.” And on it goes.
His chum, Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) wonders if he hasn’t reduced courtship to “horse shopping,” and makes sport of suggesting a “young filly, deep-chested, long legs.”
Cassidy’s cousin was one of those candidates, and summarily dismissed when she didn’t pass muster whilst quizzed at the opera. Julia (Zawe Ashton) failed the “What do you think of The Corn Laws?” question. Julia, we fear, may be a bit shallow and dim.
But Julia, caricatured and made a laughing stock by Malcolm’s rejection, isn’t one to take this insult and not return it. She summons her old school chum, Selina, a parson’s daughter and thus genteel without “fortune.” Selina (Freida Pinto) is beautiful, and Cassidy and Julia scheme to give this “arrogant” Malcolm fellow his “comeuppance.” Selina plays along.
They will make her the embodiment of Malcolm’s list, thrown into his path to lure him and then reject him with a list all her own. Good sport, wot?
Naturally, things go awry as wild-cards arrive — handsome cavalry Capt. Ossory (Theo James) — and affections wander and relatives come into the picture.
With a mostly-British cast, everyone here seems at home and comfortable in their roles, save for the characters meant to stand out as “not” being from “polite society.” American Ashley Park finds laughs as that familiar Austen “type,” the gauche, loud and tactless relation who could muck up the works by making the assorted peacocking popinjays raise disapproving eyebrows.
The charismatic James (from “Divergent” and the PBS Austen series “Sanditon”) rather throws a wrench into things by being the most dashing fellow in the lot, even overshadowing the “catch” himself. As he and Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) are the most famous members of the cast, there’s a star power imbalance to who plays whom.
The film’s only serious shortcoming is never quite measuring up to the writer whose iconic works are being sent up. Yes, there’s a hint of “Dangerous Liaisons” here, with all the scheming, but it is plainly Austen that Allain had in her sights.
There’s an untidiness to the character arcs — SOMEbody never actually apologizes for being a snooty, sexy and filthy rich Darcy in need of redemption. Playful moments like discussing wife-hunting in the middle of a horse auction play like blown opportunities, a potential laugh missing a punchline.
There needed to be a lot more of this — Selina gossiping about how the spa town, Bath, has become “quite the destination for septuagenarians.” All the haughtiness in Herefordshire can’t help Julia hide the gaps in her education.
“I quite understand. I find foreigners very tedious, as well!”
As to the race-neutral casting, it’s never an obstacle to the viewer connecting with the story, but it’s still something of a gimmick, at least for now. Malcolm makes only one offhand reference to his “people” and their African origins, but every character has parents who don’t require “explaining.”
Altering the way one casts Austen or Dickens corrects a genuine “erasing” of people of color from history, not just fiction. The true ground-breaking film in this vein is 2013’s glorious “Belle,” with Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing a real figure from the era, raised by a judge who helped to end the British slave trade, no less.
There’s nothing remotely that serious here, which was never the aim. And what is here –a good if not “all star” cast, colorful characters, the settings and the story — has charm enough to get by even if no one will ever confuse “Mr. Malcolm’s List” for “Sense & Sensibility.”
Cast: Freida Pinto, Zawe Ashton, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Ashley Park and Theo James
Credits: Directed by Emma Holly Jones, scripted Suzanne Allain, based on her novel. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:56