The stale genre of costume dramas has been given a boost in recent times by productions that have opted for a more diverse approach in casting. Amando Iannucci’s David Copperfield and Netflix smash hit Bridgerton have all the hallmarks of the classic tales, but with stars that revive character tropes with a different approach, and who represent a wider audience than in previous generations.
Here, a spectacular cast brings to life Suzanne Allain’s 2009 novel Mr Malcolm’s List. Set in 19th Century England, Sope Dirisu plays Mr Malcolm, an eligible bachelor who is yet to find a suitable match due to high standards for relationships. After being slighted by Malcolm, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) discovers he has a list of requirements that all potential wives must meet. Infuriated, she hatches a plan of revenge involving the sweet natured Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto).
While lacking the racy nature of Bridgerton, the plot is standard fare for those who love Jane Austen-like misadventures. The script is funny, if not entirely surprising, and fits in with the witty games of one-upmanship we’ve seen on screen in recent years (such as Whit Stillman’s 2016 comedy Love and Friendship).
Where the film excels is its cast, who seem perfectly matched for their roles. Diversity for the sake of it can be counterproductive, but here director Emily Holly Jones has found the right actor for each role, not just the poshest. Ashton is delightfully acidic as the antagonist, while Dirisu does a great job of revealing vast insecurities beneath the Mr Darcy-like stiffness.
Pinto glides through the self-involved crowd with a performance that is sincere without being dull, a hard balance to strike in comedy. Mr Malcolm’s List may be a by-the-numbers period piece, but the story it tells is entertaining enough to check the boxes of any fans of the genre.