Mr Malcolm’s List Back

If you thought the list of accomplishments for a fine Regency lady provided by Caroline Bingley and Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice was stringent, then it is no match for the list required of a suitable bride penned by the titular character in Mr Malcolm’s List. Adapted from Suzanne Allain’s novel of the same name by the author, published in 2009 and previously made into a short film released in 2019 by director Emma Holly Jones, this feature length romance manages to provide a sumptuous Regency world and numerous allusions to famous lines from contemporary fiction, yet remains self-aware enough to lean into the farce of the comedic plot.

Mr Malcolm’s List opens in 1802 at Mrs Finch’s Ladies Academy, where we meet a young Selina Dalton and Julia Thistlewaite, who are already lamenting their prospects for marriage in society on the eve of their separation. They declare they will keep in touch and always look out for each other, Selina from the country and Julia from town.

Fast forward to London in 1818, when a voiceover – which is very tempting to liken to the omniscient Lady Whistledown of Bridgerton – tells us of the most eligible bachelor of the season: the wealthy Honourable Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù). Simpering women smile and bat their eyelashes, desperate to make his acquaintance, whilst he looks on in disdain. He is a handsome hero with gravitas of Mr Darcy entering the Netherfield Ball, and the standards to match: our narrator adds that perhaps even more notorious than his fortune is the list of all the qualities he seeks in his bride. Unfortunately for Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), Mr Malcolm’s company for the opera, she is lacking most of the criteria, memorably declaring when asked of the Corn Laws: “I believe that restraint in one’s diet is bound to have a healthful effect!”

The next day, London is awash with Julia’s misfortune in the form of an embarrassing caricature, and Julia’s cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) finally fills her in on the details of Mr Malcolm’s list. The film makes excellent use of the Regency love of gossip and satire, but wades into different territory than the society papers that dominate Bridgerton. Here, caricature is king, and Julia’s unfortunate representation makes it as far as the country, which causes her devoted friend Selina (Frieda Pinto) to immediately come to London when requested. Selina believes she is there to offer support, yet Julia wants to get her own back on Mr Malcolm by coaching her friend to represent everything on the infamous list, reel in the hero and then break his heart. Of course, the inevitable happens, but what ensues is a comedy of manners and manipulation with a stellar cast.

It could be quite easy to immediately fall into comparing Mr Malcolm’s List at length to both Bridgerton or the work of Jane Austen: the former because of its timing, and Season 2 beginning with Anthony Bridgerton declaring he has a list for a wife, and the latter with the use of recognisable lines like “How ardently I admire you” and that a woman should “educate herself through extensive reading”, which are almost verbatim from Pride and Prejudice. However, this adaptation is clever in building upon the tropes of Regency romance and self-consciously nodding towards them to emphasise the ridiculous, the romantic and the recognisable aspects of early nineteenth century culture to a modern audience. Julia desperately trying to get her servant John to get rid of every caricature of her suggests she has gone viral, and Lord Cassidy trying to teach Selina how to become the elegant sophisticate Mr Malcolm might desire is reminiscent of the makeover montages present in most romantic comedies. A scene in which Selina and Julia steal away to the kitchen in order to comfort eat dessert is almost Bridget Jones-esque. It is a pastiche of references, but in the best way possible.

The power in the script is its awareness that it is a fun adaptation with quite a simple plotline which allows for a freshness in its approach. It is beautifully made, with sweeping views of English landscapes (that were, in fact, filmed in Ireland) and sumptuous costumes, and seamlessly uses colourblind casting. The characters walk in and out of early nineteenth century spaces and events: a ball, a gentlemen’s club, a gallery, a public park, the opera, a country house, even a horse auction, taking in enough of Regency culture that the historical setting does not feel contrived. Small details enhance this: a particularly memorable one is Ashley Park, as Selina’s deliciously vulgar twice-widowed cousin Gertie Covington, wearing a costume at a masquerade ball that recalls Marie Antoinette and her ship wig celebrating a French naval victory.

Perhaps the best character – even amongst the perfectly-timed comic facial expressions, witty quips and melodramatic situations carried by the excellent main cast – is Julia’s servant John. He is awkward and enthusiastic, downing a glass of wine before he enters Lord Cassidy’s club to deliver a message, without ever falling into being a fool. In particular, when serving dinner to all of the main characters and listening to them discussing the 1818 Church Building Act, in which Selina determines – and Mr Malcolm admiringly agrees – that some of the “exorbitant” amount of money set aside should be used to better the lot of the poor, John leans in to his fellow footman and whispers, “They could just pay us more.”

Mr Malcolm’s List is a romp through the Regency beau monde that celebrates and plays with its roots in a romance novel published only 13 years ago. It feels modern without being forced, something which can be and has been hard for period dramas to do, delivering an entertaining plot that has at its centre two heroines who always fight for their own agency, and a dashing hero who learns his lesson to boot.