In Mr Malcolm’s List, the Bridgerton-ising of British costume drama advances towards its event horizon. One day – yesterday would do – we’ll need to call it quits: even without the sex, this pampered milieu reinvents the Regency era as a shamelessly bogus romcom playground. Half the characters devote their life’s work to gossiping and/or pouting, while literary subtlety gets kicked to the curb.
But still: this is not Netflix’s Persuasion, and for that we can turn to Emma Holly Jones’s film, lightly bow, and thank her for showing mercy. For starters, the diverse casting works infinitely better in this film’s case, because it doesn’t seem at odds with Austen’s social critique. (If in doubt, leave Austen out of it: Suzanne Allain adapted this script from her own 2009 novel.) Indeed, Freida Pinto and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù lock eyes so attractively in the lead roles that it’s hard to imagine what anyone could complain about there.
The only boxes being ticked are on the secret checklist wielded by Dìrísù’s title character, who is society’s choosiest bachelor and biggest catch. They’re qualifications for a bride: she must be demure, intelligent, forgiving and graceful. Musical talent and genteel relations too, please.
Mr Malcolm escorts fourth-season débutante Julia (Zawe Ashton, game for making a fool of herself) to the opera, but she assumes Rossini is the fat tenor and the corn laws are a diet regimen. Rather than being tickled, her companion stifles a yawn. Before she knows it, Julia’s the victim of a scandal-sheet caricature – “Next!” – and wants him publicly humiliated.
Julia ropes her country-mouse friend Selina (Pinto) into putative revenge, the idea being for her to conquer every point on the list, then brandish one of her own and fail him. Julia reckons without this pair’s annoyingly reciprocated lovey-doveyness.
Allain’s lively plot inverts Emma – it’s a matchmaking ruse to inflict disgrace. It’s only in the last third that everyone’s forced to behave infuriatingly, just to keep the romantic tension afloat.
That said, Dìrísù can do wounded pride better than anyone, and Pinto fizzes when she’s fuming, so even the film’s duller developments play to their strengths. Meanwhile, Oliver Jackson-Cohen turns in an early Hugh Grant routine as Julia’s foppish accomplice, Lord “Cassie” Cassidy, but isn’t quite the ace in the hole, comedically speaking: no one is.
It’s in the wit department that this trifle wobbles most, dodging irony and cosying up with convention. These liaisons may not be in any way dangereux, but they might have been a little more mischievous. While holding nothing against Jones, or any of her cast, I’ll just get back to biting my thumb at Bridgerton.
PG cert, 118 min. In cinemas now