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Mr. Malcolm's List Review: Pleasant But Bland Period Romance

  • Charming performances from Zawe Ashton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Theo James
  • Refreshingly modern inclusive casting
  • No spark between the romantic leads
  • Lack of conflict makes for dull moments

Now that "Bridgerton" has proven that there's an audience for diverse period romances with a modern touch, a flood of similar projects will undoubtedly follow in its wake. And why not? There's a reason why we've gotten a steady stream of Jane Austen adaptations over the decades — they're just plain likable. The latest entry in this burgeoning subgenre is "Mr. Malcolm's List," which puts a new spin on the arrogant Regency gentleman and the unconventional lady who catches his eye. The film features charming performances from its stars, Sope Dirisu and Freida Pinto, but it suffers from a lack of narrative conflict, making "Mr. Malcolm's List" enjoyable enough, but without the fire that could make it truly come alive.

Mr. Malcolm (Dirisu) is the younger son of an earl, and although he isn't likely to inherit his father's title, his prospects are good enough to make him a target for every fortune-hunting lady in society. But he's determined that if he ever marries, it will only be to a woman who meets his particular requirements. Malcolm has a Tinder-style list of must-haves and deal-breakers, and he's unwilling to compromise on a single one of them. But one day, he spurns the advances of Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), inviting her to the opera and then essentially ghosting her. When she discovers the truth about his list, she decides to get her revenge.

Julia schemes to punish Mr. Malcolm

Julia enlists the aid of a dear childhood friend, Selina (Pinto), having her pretend to meet all of his requirements so that he'll fall in love with her. Then, his final humiliation will be complete: She'll present her own list of prerequisites for marriage, and Malcolm will be found wanting. Or at least that's how Julia envisions it. But will Selina just be pretending to be the perfect woman for Malcolm, or are they actually perfectly suited for one another?

Pinto is incredibly charming as Selina, so much so that it's difficult to imagine anyone not falling in love with her. But that's part of the problem: She's a saint, and the fact that she is truly without fault throughout the entire film just makes Malcolm look like a jerk by comparison for treating her the way that he does. It's clear that they are attracted to one another from their very first meeting, but aside from Selina's meager involvement in Julia's scheme (which she abandons almost immediately), there's no inherent conflict in their personalities for them to overcome.

Mr. Malcolm never discovers, for example, any eccentric quality in Selina that he winds up loving, thus making him question the soundness of his list. She simply goes through the film serenely meeting his every qualification, most of which are just very traditional expectations of a meek, subservient, endlessly forgiving wife. And he's never asked to challenge any of his beliefs — why should he? She's exactly what he wants. The only change he really embraces is that he opens himself up, letting his guard down and allowing for the possibility that there may be someone out there who he would want to marry. They barely even disagree over the course of the film. This level of equanimity might make for a stress-free and pleasant marriage, but it unfortunately also results in a boring on-screen relationship.

The secondary characters shine

There's far more excitement to be found in the film's supporting characters. Julia, impulsive and petty, but with a good heart. Captain Ossory (Theo James), the third leg alongside Selina and Malcolm in a very undeveloped love triangle, whose dialogue with Julia crackles in the way that makes them feel as though they should be the main characters. Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Julia's cousin and a silly fop who collaborates with their scheme to humble Mr. Malcolm, a man who is perhaps academically incurious but with a strong sense of emotional intelligence. These are the characters who bring life to the film, and whenever they're on screen, the tempo seems to quicken ever-so-slightly. Julia and Ossory's relationship in particular is a delight — they take pleasure in riling each other up, Julia especially never failing to get her digs in.

Aside from them, however, "Mr. Malcolm's List" feels like a period drama that is sorely lacking in electricity. We watch Selina jump through the hoops that Malcolm has constructed for her, but there's surprisingly little time devoted to watching them find an organic love outside of the requirements on the list. How then, do we escape the feeling that he cares for her primarily because she checks all of his boxes on the surface rather than the qualities that exist deep within her? People like period romances because the characters have an opportunity to profess the purest kind of love, soppy sentiments that would feel foolish coming out of the mouths of modern-day protagonists. But "Mr. Malcolm's List" doesn't delve into these all-consuming feelings — its confessions of love are pleasant rather than earth-shattering. Its lead characters are ultimately just too bland – Selina is without flaw, and Malcolm is underdeveloped.

"Mr. Malcolm's List" capitalizes on the growing trend of adding a modern twist to the period drama. And while it does offer an intriguingly updated version of Georgian romance, especially with its commitment to inclusive casting, without the novelty of sex and eroticism like "Bridgerton" offers, it doesn't feel like it's bringing enough to the table to have much of an impact on audiences. It's nice, to be sure, and fans of the genre will likely find it a pleasant enough diversion. Still, "pleasant enough" may well be faint praise, where romance is concerned.