Over the last decade, the Regency era period drama has grown significantly in popularity. While costumed dramas have always had an audience, the success of series like Bridgerton, Poldark, and Emma. (2020) became cultural mainstays. In addition, a new generation of audiences fell in love with Pride & Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, as well as their modern retellings. As the focus has increased on the genre, there has been a rush to continue catering to the audience. On its face, Mr. Malcolm’s List seems to take advantage of the audience’s attention. However, while director Emma Holly Jones imbues the film with excellent interpersonal tension, the film struggles to differentiate itself from its contemporaries.
Based on Suzanne Allain‘s novel, Mr. Malcolm’s List follows the young Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) as she attempts to woo the renowned Jeremiah Malcolm (Sope Dirisu). While Mr. Malcolm has courted many young women out in society, he judges them against a list of ideals he wishes to have in his future wife. After refusing Lord Cassidy’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) match-making to a Ms. Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), Malcolm opens up about his list. It does not take long for word to spread, and feeling spurned by Malcolm’s subjectivity, Julia invites her lifelong friend Selina to the city. Selina, Julia, and Lord Cassidy seek to hold Mr. Malcolm accountable for his egotistical actions.
Jones seems born to direct a period drama like Mr. Malcolm’s List and expertly builds out the Regency Era world. She meets the considerable task of visually representing the era with grace. Jones and DP Tony Miller establish emotion through visual language, primarily through blocking. The way they utilize light also makes Mr. Malcolm’s List a joy to watch. Jones creates picturesque outlines of characters standing against backlit backgrounds. It unmistakably brings to life silhouette cuttings of the era. The use of color in the costumes and visual dynamics of a mascarade ball helps showcase the technical brilliance on display.
Dirisu and Pinto display chemistry but struggle to feel as magnetic as recent couples in similar films. Dirisu brings an extra layer of poise and raw emotion through his performance, which does much of the heavy lifting for the audience to understand the character. For Pinto, she suffers from a slightly underwritten role, which feels defined by genre tropes when conflict arises. Rather than making Selina feel unique, she becomes relegated to Austen cosplay. Ashton surprises as one of the more emotionally dynamic performers in the cast. She communicates her frustrations and anger through her eyes, and through her ability to communicate through non-verbals, we get a unique insight into her thoughts. While her character could easily have become a caricature of a woman scorned, Ashton steals the movie as a character frustrated by her lack of success in a world she expected to dominate.
The film comes up a little short in two ways. First, while the performances are not bad, they do little to hold your attention after the credits have rolled. Jackson-Cohen and Theo James both find themselves written into underwritten roles. Their acknowledgment of their feelings clashes with the restrained performances from Dirisu and Pinto. Considering each of these men has led television series of note on Netflix and HBO, we know they rarely give flat performances. This issue ultimately falls on the screenplay, which Allain adapted from her novel. The script relies on over-exposition to capture Austen’s dialogue but never approaches the witness of those stories. Additionally, the story becomes somewhat predictable, telegraphing how characters will react when presented with new information.
Another hurdle for Mr. Malcolm’s List is the second season of Bridgerton. Many of this film’s ideas were central plotlines of the Shonda Rhimes-produced series. In that season, Anthony Bridgerton struggles to find a suitable woman who matches the ideals he wants in a wife, only to fall in love with a newcomer to the town who seems poised to reject him. This does not take away from the quality of Mr. Malcolm’s List but instead makes the ideas at play feel less fresh or unique.
Despite criticisms of the screenplay, Mr. Malcolm’s List will thrill the many who love period romance films. If nothing else, audiences should tune in for the Dirisu and Pinto relationship, as both performers rise above the screenplay. Additionally, Jones seems primed to direct some strong films soon. Her eye for visuals already showcases her talent, and with a slightly more complex script, she could helm a sizeable hit.