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‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ familiar in a good way – Play It Again Tim

Written by Tim Miller

“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.

Sope Dirisu is Mr. Malcolm in “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” (Bleeker Street photos)

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.

Freida Pinto, left, and Zawe Ashton play friends in “Mr. Malcolm’s List.”

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

Play It Again, Tim

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.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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