Frothy But Flawed Mr. Malcolm’s List

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By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

Mr. Malcolm’s List looks down on list makers and historical accuracy. The film is little more than a frothy romance although it does raise some intriguing questions but none of these are asked nor answered in this ersatz romantic foray into Jane Austen’s world of Regency era romance.

The film begins in 1802 England at Mrs. Finch’s Ladies Academy where a young Julia Thistlewaite (Aisling Doyle) is parting with a young Selina Dalton (Tia Ann Jain). Only a view of the facade and the bedroom of the parting girls is revealed so we know little else of the girls’ friendship in this academy. Julia makes Selina swears she  will write a letter every week, but Julia confesses that once in society she’ll be far too busy to write back every week. Still, Julia proclaims they will remain friends and she will send for Selina after she has fallen in love.

In 1818 (the year after Jane Austen’s death), the tall and broad-shouldered honorable Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dìrísù) is the most eligible bachelor because although he is not the eldest son of an earl, a maternal aunt left him the bulk of her sizable fortune (£20,000 or $24,051 a year) along with a large country estate in Kent. He has escorted the now adult Julia to the opera. Julia is in her fourth season, but not yet found a match and there are some obvious reasons.

Julia declares, “I do wonder why they make so many foreign operas; we are in England.” She does not know what the opera in question, The Barber of Seville, was by Gioachino Rossini (libretto in Italian by Cesare Sterbini). When Mr. Malcolm asks Julia about Corn Laws of 1815 (tariffs and restrictions on corn designed to protect English farmers), Julia is clueless. She blunders on, thinking they must be related to nutrition. When Mr. Malcolm fails to call on her again, she receives a letter with a caricature of herself as the casualty of cooled affections. One intuitively feels that had the caricature been about someone else, Julia would have found malicious joy in it.

Embarrassed and believing that her prospects for marriage have been dashed, Julia first consults with her cousin, Cassie–Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and after learning about the titular list,  enlists her old friend, Selina, for revenge.

Selina has been the companion of an elderly widow in Bath, but the widow recently died leaving Selina without a position and back home in Sussex with her vicar father, mother and her large family of siblings. She has just turned down a proposal from the much older man when she is summoned to London by Julia. Julia, with help from Cassie,  begins training Selina to be Mr. Malcolm’s perfect prospect although Selina says, “I’m surprised that Mr. Malcolm desires a wife when he could just as easily hire a performing bear.”

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When Selina has captured Mr. Malcolm’s affections, Julia wants Selina to spring her own list upon her suitor and find him wanting. Julia says, “That would be a perfect sort of poetic justice.”

When the plan is in action, as one might expect, a complication arises. An old friend of Mr. Malcolm, Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James) of the 18th regiment, comes to London to court Selina.

People of East Asian descent are also part of this multicultural casting. Nagoya-born Naoko Mori plays Mrs. Thistlewaite, Julia’s mother, and Korean American Ashley Park, plays Gertie Covington, a troublesome relative of Selina.

Even with the issue of color-blind casting aside, the storyline suffers. Director Emma Holly Jones is working from a screenplay by the author Suzanne Allain based on her novel of the same name. Allain’s only other screenplay credit on IMDb is a 2019 short, also called Mr. Malcolm’s List. From the same source, Jones has only five directing credits, with this film being her first feature-length project. Jones also directed short which the film is based on.  For a first feature-length film, Mr. Malcolm’s List, is a commendable effort, but it falls short of being a good film. The camera movement is static, more like a television movie than a theatrical film. The timing could have been a bit tighter. The lighting and costuming choices are not always spot on and lighting is one of those things on my list.

There’s nothing attractive about Zawe Ashton’s vengeful Julia. She carries on a lopsided relationship with her oldest friend Selina. Outside of Selina and her cousin Cassie, she seems to have no other friends. She didn’t properly prepare for her outing by learning about Rossini. We only know that her biggest decision was what to put in her hair–a feather that irritated Mr. Malcolm.

Nor is Dìrísù’s Mr. Malcolm a charming hero of this romance, beyond what we’re told–his fortune and his grand country estate.  The script doesn’t tell us why he is so interested in Corn Laws.

I haven’t read the novel, but the film lacks the kind of pointed social commentary and wit of the best films based on the works of novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) or, from a different period,  playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

There were Black aristocracy. Yet the more intriguing question that this film and the Netflix series Bridgerton raise is: Are Asian Indians Black? And what of North Africa and West Asia?

After all, just a few months ago, Chris Rock referred to an Asian Indian American man, Joseph Patel, as “White” when Patel along with three others won Oscars for “Summer of Soul.”

I look more in depth into this on my blog post.

Mr. Malcolm’s List operates in a color-blind English aristocracy. It is a frothy romance existing outside of reality, a boring  dressed up predictable romance.  Mr. Malcolm’s List was released on 1 July 2022.

For my full review and Mr. Malcolm’s actual list, visit AgeOfTheGeek.org.

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