Mr. Malcolm's List

We all have our cinematic biases. Mine are costume dramas. Done well, they can be extremely effective. If they're stuffy, though, they induce a heavy sense of boredom on my part. Too many of them focus so much on recreating the look of a bygone era that they stifle any life inherent in the story. Mr. Malcolm's List never once risked evoking that reaction from me. This is a lively, funny, and delightful film with no trace whatsoever of that dreaded Masterpiece Theater vibe.

Zawe Ashton gives a knockout performance as Julia Thistlewaite, a young woman of means eager to find a husband. Like many women in London, she has been asked out by the city's most eligible bachelor, Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). After a date to the opera, he opts not to continue seeing her. She later finds out from her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) that it's because she does not meet all the qualifications on a written list he devised to help him find a mate. Humiliated by this public rejection, Julia decides a little revenge is in order.

To accomplish that, she summons longtime friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) to London. The plan is simple: Julia and Lord Cassidy will teach her how to check every box on his list, then, once he's thoroughly smitten, she will dump him based on her own list, and he will understand how it feels to be callously dismissed. Selina is initially unsure how comfortable she is taking part in this, but loyalty to her friend wins out.

Could you reasonably guess what happens next? Yes, I suppose you could if you've ever seen a romantic-comedy before. The destination doesn't matter as much as the journey to that destination. Mr. Malcolm's List is fun because of how it shows its characters' layers. We initially think Mr. Malcolm is a narcissistic heel. As time goes on, a reason for his list is revealed, and it makes us re-evaluate our opinion of him. Similarly, our rooting interest is firmly with Julia at the start. Her insistent drive to get revenge gradually suggests a bitter side that's not entirely sympathetic. Such nuances keep the story compelling, even if we know more or less where it's headed.

Wonderful work from the ensemble cast also contributes to the entertainment value. Ashton lights up the screen, deftly finding humor in Julia's embarrassment, as well as her quest for vengeance. Jackson-Cohen emits Hugh Grant vibes as Lord Cassidy, who really isn't sure any of this is a good idea. Dìrísù is fantastic showing how Mr. Malcolm puts up a façade, then lets it down upon falling in love. He has nice chemistry with Pinto. The Slumdog Millionaire actress injects the story with earnestness and grace. If we didn't believe Mr. Malcolm would fall for her, the entire plot would collapse. We believe it. Theo James is here too as Captain Henry Ossory, an acquaintance of Selina's who witnesses some of the shenanigans.

Writer Suzanne Allain provides the players with sharp, witty dialogue to speak, while director Emma Holly Jones paces the film perfectly, giving it a peppiness that ensures the story never drags. Mr. Malcolm's List even manages to feel contemporary in its themes, despite being set during the 19th century. The movie has a lot to offer, whether you love costume dramas, loathe them, or fall somewhere in between. It wins you over with its charming nature.

out of four

Mr. Malcolm's List is rated PG for some smoking and mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.