‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ Is a Fresh Take on a Regency Comedy of Manners

Rejection is never easy, but Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), gets creative when it comes to coping with her scorn in “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” a charming Regency comedy of manners based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Allain, who also wrote the screenplay. After the most eligible bachelor in London, Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), goes cold on her after one awkward date to the opera, Julia becomes unnerved, not so much because of her personal feelings for him, but because of the public ridicule she faces due to the rejection, including newspaper cartoons making fun of her, the eighteenth century version of gossip blogs and social media trolling.

After Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Julia’s cousin and Mr. Malcolm’s close friend, reveals to her of a list he has of the must-have requirements he has for a future wife (think Mr. Darcy’s checklist for what makes an accomplished woman but in writing), she becomes determined to turn the tables on him. She enlists her best friend, Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), to masquerade as Mr. Malcolm’s perfect woman, the goal being for her to eventually spurn him, showing him her own list that proves him wanting.

“Julia Thistlewaite is a character who is so much more complex than I really could have imagined when I picked up the script,” Ashton revealed to Entertainment Voice. She also recounted how she said yes to the role after only 24 hours. “She’s a woman that we meet four seasons into her matchmaking, and she hasn’t made a match. Society starts to close in on her, and that felt very relatable and very contemporary. The fact that she was also a protagonist in this story, but also has this extremely humbling moment, and finding redemption and finding love, was just a much more quirky and complex arc than I expected to find in a Regency piece, if I’m honest.”

While Selina, the smart, beautiful and humble daughter of a country vicar, is eager to help out her aristocratic friend, not because of her status, but because of the bond they forged years prior as schoolgirls, she does not anticipate actually falling for the fastidious Mr. Malcolm. Also complicating things is the arrival of another suitor, the dashing Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James), who comes to town to woo Selina, a woman he never met but was recommended to him by his late aunt. In a welcome twist, he ends up following for haughty Julia.

Although Julia’s initial impression of Henry is that he is beneath her, their relationship slowly transforms, and it is satisfying to watch as he wins her over with his charms and goodness. “It was wonderful,” Ashton says of working with James. “And it’s not just Theo James, it’s Theo James with a mustache, hello! It feels like an ultra Theo James. Theo James rebooted… Theo is an absolute quirkster. He is so funny. He is great at doing these wonderfully brooding, intense characters, but he has an unbelievably fiery wit. That was a really delicious thing to find out as we started to film. It caused a lot of corpsing, and I’ll leave you to see the blooper reel to see just how much there was.”

Since the days of Shakespeare and before, seeing two lovers come together after an initial bad impression that one has to overcome has always been amusing to watch. Ashton continued, “There was something also about the two of us that I think just understood the antihero love story and leaned into that. The enemies becoming lovers is such a wonderful trope in any movie, but when you’re two actors who don’t necessarily shy away from that and the walking of the line, you open up a lot of opportunities for real acerbic lines, but then also some sizzling chemistry as well.”

Underneath her prideful exterior, there’s a softness to Julia that Ashton brings out. She would not have been friends with Selina for so long if that was not the case. The two women, who are opposites in so many ways, play well nicely off of each other. Allain, along with director Emma Holly Jones, evidently set out to create characters more fully fleshed out than what one is used to seeing in these period comedies of manners, films inspired by the plays of the regency era and before. Ashton and Pinto both do excellent jobs of bringing to life these complicated women.

“I would say, first and foremost, as an actor, I’m someone who loves to walk the line between vulnerability and villainy,” said Ashton when asked about identifying with Julia. “That’s just what’s delicious to me as an actor. Those are the characters I’m drawn to in literature and art. I don’t necessarily want a character to want me to like them, if that makes sense. I would happily be won over by someone’s naughtiness rather than someone’s goodness. If that’s a similarity, I don’t know, but that’s a pleasure I got from playing her.”

Meanwhile, Dìrísù brings lots of layers to the misunderstood Mr. Malcolm, who proves to be romantic and open to some of his opinions being challenged, such as his inane idea that his future wife must come from an impeccable family. The colorbling casting not only infuses the film with freshness, but by casting a wider net when it came to casting, Jones was able to showcase talent not only like Pinto, Ashton and Dìrísù, but also Ashley Park, who plays Selina’s cousin Gertie Covington. Mrs. Covington is considered “vulgar,” the Regency term for a woman who talks too much. Park is so delightful and funny that it is a shame that she is only in a handful of scenes.

There’s plenty to love about “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” If this romantic and escapist film was so fun to watch, that is in no small part due to the fact the actors had a blast on set. Ashton recalled, “A lot of the scenes are just us trying not to laugh, so any kind of innerworkings you think I might be capable of doing as an actor are probably just me trying not to laugh my head off in scenes with this cast.”

Mr. Malcolm’s List” releases July 1 in theaters nationwide.