In this Jane Austen-ish caper, Zawe Ashton brings dollops of wiggly mischief to the role of Julia Thistlewaite, a flirty, impetuous and somewhat jaded schemer, who’s good with a gun and even better at holding a grudge.
It’s 1818 and Julia is furious with handsome aristocrat, Mr Jeremy Malcolm ( Sopé Dìrísù; so impressive as a furtive Sudanese refugee in the Netflix chiller His House, and delightfully grave here).
Mr Malcolm stopped wooing Julia when he discovered she knew nothing about the Corn Laws. This is because Jeremy has a list of ten requirements that his future wife needs to meet; one of them is “sensible conversation”.
To get her revenge, Julia persuades her beautiful, Sussex-based, naturally erudite but impoverished friend, Selina (Freida Pinto), to come to London and, effectively, transform herself into Mr Malcolm’s ideal woman. In order to jilt him, naturally. As soon as the pair meet, however, real sparks fly. When Selina implies that Mr Malcolm’s intellectual brooding may be self-serving, he’s charmed by her chutzpah. It’s love at first slight.
If you’ve seen The Personal History of David Copperfield, or the TV series Bridgerton, you’ll take it in your stride that the film has been completely colourblind cast - most of the major characters don’t even resemble the rest of their families (Julia’s mother is played by Japanese actress Naoko Mori). The new element is that Mr Malcolm sees himself as having a dual ethnic identity (he makes reference, for example, to a Yorùbá saying). In this version of Regency England, the usual rules regarding wealth and privilege apply. By contrast, the rules concerning race are not as we would expect.
The movie never stops trying to make us laugh. And thanks to Oliver Jackson-Cohen (along with the aforementioned Ashton), there are many chuckles to be had. Jackson-Cohen played a pathologically abusive scientist in The Invisible Man and a buff, surly gangster in The Lost Daughter. Here, he’s unrecognisable as Julia’s languid cousin, Lord Cassidy, a fop whose heart is bigger than his brain (it’s possible that Jackson-Cohen is a fan of Blackadder the Third; Lord Cassidy, I swear, is a cross between Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent and Tim McInnerny’s Lord Percy). Either way, the character is a bewitching goose.
Shot in Ireland, on a low-budget, Mr. Malcolm’s List looks spick and span (rooms are uncluttered; bright light pours through handsomely large windows). A few am-dram touches aside, the whole thing moves at a clip. When set against the 2019 short of the same name (starring plank-stiff Gemma Chan as Julia, and preceding Bridgerton by well over a year) it shows how much director Emma Holly Jones has evolved. Her feature-length debut ticks a lot of boxes. She and film-making, in other words, are a very fine match.