“Mr. Malcolm’s List” (PG, 117 minutes, in theaters and on demand) isn’t based on a Jane Austen novel. It only seems to be.
Based on a 2009 self-published novel by Suzanne Allain, who also wrote the screenplay, director Emma Holly Jones’ film adaptation, like Austen’s works, is set in the early 1800s England and involves the same kind of romantic intrigue and satirical social commentary.
This isn’t a bad thing. Though it might seem familiar in style and substance, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” stands on its own as an entertaining period romance with engaging performances, a witty script, and beautiful art direction, cinematography, costumes and music.
As the title suggests, the film involves a character named Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu) – Jeremy Malcolm, a wealthy bachelor – who (surprise!) has a list, which includes all of the qualities he requires for a potential wife.
Handsome and dignified, Malcolm is considered quite the catch among the young women of London’s high society. When he takes the beautiful but shallow Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) to the opera, she is initially excited – until she learns about his list and discovers her lack of knowledge in politics and the arts has left him unimpressed.
Devastated, and angered by what she perceives as his arrogant rejection of her, Julia enlists the help of her friend from childhood, Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), a vicar’s daughter, to turn the tables on him. Much more grounded and thoughtful than her friend, Selina is reluctant to take part in the scheme, but relents out of loyalty to Julia.
Naturally, things do not go according to plan, as romantic complications arise. Also in the mix: Capt. Henry Ossory (Theo James of HBO’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife”), a recent arrival to London who has ties to Selina.
The whole situation plays out more or less as you’d expect – but, then again, “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t exactly have jaw-dropping twists, either. Surprise isn’t the point. Instead, the idea is to show people who, mostly because of their own flaws (vanity, anger, superficial values, desire for vengeance, a tendency to pass judgment too quickly), struggle to find happiness. As silly or frustrating as some of these characters are, it’s hard not to like them, and hope that everything works out for them in the end.
Though the central character is arguably the (mostly) noble Selina (Pinto heads the cast), Ashton’s seemingly frivolous Julia stands out as the liveliest, funniest, and, ultimately, most compelling presence on the screen. Julia, as much as anyone, exemplifies what “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is suggesting.
And what exactly is that?
It’s that, as misguided as they might be, at heart there is an essential goodness in people, and that, whether through forgiveness or finding a way to see beyond themselves or finding true love, there’s always hope that this goodness can come to light. ***½ (out of four)
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.