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Ticking down a checklist of qualifications in 'Mr. Malcolm's List'

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù plays Mr. Malcolm, the most desirable bachelor in 1818 London.
Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street
Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù plays Mr. Malcolm, the most desirable bachelor in 1818 London.

Delicate teacups, gentlemen tipping hats to ladies with parasols. The new Regency romance, Mr. Malcolm's List has a lot in common with ones you've seen before, and that's true whether you're thinking the tradition-bound like Pride and Prejudice, or the multiculturally-cast like Bridgerton.

The story is set mostly in 1818, in posh enough circumstances that we're introduced to the title character as he's entering an opera house — dapper, top-hatted, tall, Black and handsome.

The honorable Jeremy Malcolm is, a narrator tells us, "the biggest catch of the season," though with no title of his own and only the younger son of — but never mind. You don't really need details.

Suffice it to say that he's soon sitting in a box with eligible bachelorette Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) and that her line of casually-dismissive chatter is not going well. Julia wonders briefly why "they keep making foreign operas," and when he murmurs "are you not a fan of Rossini?" she doesn't recognize the composer's name. Julia knows even less about politics, and her suitor is soon making only halfhearted attempts to stifle a yawn.

He will not call on her again, which makes Julia the subject of gossip and a scandal-sheet caricature, and when she sends her amusingly dim cousin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to find out why, she discovers she didn't meet "the fourth qualification," on Mr. Malcolm's checklist of requirements for a bride.

A list of her own

Stung, and also indignant that matrimony has been reduced to an inventory, Julia brings her childhood friend Selina (Freida Pinto) to London — country mouse to Julia's city mouse – and hatches a plan to turn her into the ideal woman Mr. Malcolm seeks, then let him discover that she has a list of her own, and he doesn't meet its requirements.

Freida Pinto, left, and Zawe Ashton in <em>Mr. Malcolm's List</em>.
/ Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street
Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street
Freida Pinto, left, and Zawe Ashton in Mr. Malcolm's List.

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Selina reluctantly agrees to participate, and let's fast forward past the intensive training routine Julia devises, to the couple's first conversation, where Selina finds Mr. Malcolm hiding away upstairs at a ball "reflecting on the futility of a dream."

"Is any dream futile," Selina wonders, and in time-honored regency fashion, they're off.

Now, you know where this is going, and director Emma Holly Jones and screenwriter Susan Allain know how to postpone it getting there.

Delaying the inevitable

Postponement is sort of baked in actually; this project has been in the works since Allain self-published her novel in 2009. Then she wrote a screenplay that was featured on a 2015 podcast where Jones heard it. They produced a short teaser film hoping to attract funding, which went online in 2019. And the novel was officially published in 2020.

So if you think you detect echoes of TV's Bridgerton in the film's multiculturalism, it's more the other way 'round.

The story has a comfortable predictability, from attitudes needing adjustment, to broadly comic secondary characters, to a leading man who can admit to doubts.

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù's Mr. Malcolm smolders handsomely, the ladies find various ways to put him in his place, and Mr. Malcolm's List ticks off regency romance requirements — lush surroundings, velvets and satins, rambunctious elders, not to mention comedy of errors, of manners, of pride without prejudice — quite as if the filmmakers are under the impression the audience has a list.

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Corrected: June 30, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly identified the screenwriter of Mr. Malcolm's List. Her name is Suzanne Allain, not Susan Allain.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.