Mr. Malcolm’s List is, quite simply, an entertaining film – in the vein of Bridgerton or 1997’s Cinderella, the film does away with pesky little details like genetics in favor of having a good time and telling a story in an interesting manner. The gist of the story is that the younger son of an Earl has “thank you, next’ed” a beautiful debutante, and she is confused as to his reasons why. When her cousin divines the true reason, the dashing Mr. Malcolm has a list of requirements for a prospective bride, the lady will not sit idly by and concocts a plot to get revenge on him – by having her good friend from the country draw him in and reveal at the moment of triumph that she has her own list. Nothing could go wrong, right?
The titular character, Mr. Jeremiah Malcolm, is played by Sope Dirisu, and he is the bachelor of the season – young, handsome, and wealthy despite not being the first-born son. In a time when ladies are paraded around ballrooms, vying for the hands of young lords or wealthy gentlemen, he is a perfect target for their designs. Mr. Malcolm, though, wants a wife with strong convictions, intellect, conversational prowess, beauty, wit, a good family and so many other things that I need to rewatch the movie at home so I can pause it and read them all. Still, these are the critical requirements that Mr. Malcolm has.
Julia Thistlewaite (played by Zawa Ashton) is the most recently dismissed by the eligible maidens, and when she can come up with no discernable reason why she would be excused after one, public date, she is determined to figure it out. Luckily for her, Mr. Malcolm is all too amenable to discuss his list with Julia’s cousin, Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Because I suppose he just expected that Cassidy wouldn’t share this damning information with his family? Men did that, back then of course – keeping secrets, especially to “protect” women from the darker, seedier aspects of life. But, Julia is clearly the dominant half of this familial relationship, playing on expected tropes and conventions of the genre and the time period – to great, comedic effect. It is clear, despite their petty banter at times, that they do love one another, and that is paramount.
With knowledge of the list, though, Julia sets out to get her revenge and invites her friend from boarding school, the daughter of a Vicar, to her family’s London townhouse in order to achieve it. This friend is Selina Dalton, played by Frieda Pinto, and she has just turned down the (third) proposal of marriage from the elderly man in town, who informs her that she will undoubtedly receive another offer as good as his. She sends him packing and, in a different place than she was beforehand, eagerly agrees to see her friend. Upon arriving, Selina discovers the real reason and, while hesitant, she does want to help her friend – and not be a namby-pamby, of course.
What follows isn’t too hard to anticipate. They inform Selina of the list and try to give her guidance so that they can mold her into the perfect woman that will draw Mr. Malcolm in. The thing is, it was obvious from the get-go that Selina would have already been perfect. She was prepared to answer what the Corn Laws were about without hesitation, the question that tanked Julia’s date with Mr. Malcolm. On top of that, she also proves that sometimes the exception to the rule is not a bad thing – she would only technically fail two of the items, a good family (her cousin Gertie played by the hilarious Ashley Park) and her lack of musical aptitude (thanks, Lord Cassidy for the handy assist!).
Because people cannot live up to expectations that high, or that unrealistic. It doesn’t help that Mr. Malcolm adds items to the list after incidental meetings, with those additions making it harder for anybody to live up to it anyway. The end of the film, of course, makes it clear that the list is little more than a shield around his heart. It is impossible because it must be, and he is shocked and intrigued when he finds somebody who achieves the impossible. Or, at least, appears to.
In order to hamper his efforts, right when Mr. Malcolm is assured that Selina could be the one, Captain Henry Ossory appears (played by Theo James in another period piece role – keep them coming, you are greatly appreciated). Selina had a position as a care-woman for Henry’s aunt and was with her when she finally passed. Henry’s aunt sent him a note, all but demanding him to make a match with Selina, and while he was amenable to doing so, he soon finds his attention drawn elsewhere. Right to Julia Thistlewaite. The drama that ensues is hilarious and tragic all at the same time, opting to give such massive mood whiplash that kept my attention throughout the entirety of the film.
Period pieces have been an enduring film genre for as long as film has existed. We romanticize the past and the simplicity of its time – despite the fact that in doing so, we are often ignoring major historical events in favor of a good time. This can be a good thing. Not every film has to be deep or meaningful or tied to powerful imagery and thematic elements, though these pieces can add richness to a story they are not critical. Yet, films are always a product of their time. Even when we attempt to view these stories for when they take place, we cannot help but also view them for when they were made, not to mention when we are viewing them. In a post “Me Too” era, how men treat women isn’t just a theoretical conversation piece, and countless films are being reexamined through this lens. This is a good thing. Mr. Malcolm’s List’s biggest flaw, for me, is the central plot point.
The damn list.
But that is the point of the story. The list stands in the way of happiness, and without it, Mr. Malcolm would have dismissed Selina after meeting her cousin. Love cannot be written on a list and disseminated as such – it is far more chaotic than that. That’s what makes it so much fun to fall into.