Mr Malcolm’s List review – Regency romcom served with cake-icing of irony

<span>Photograph: Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street/AP</span>
Photograph: Ross Ferguson/Bleecker Street/AP

To watch this engagingly silly and self-aware comedy is akin to inhaling a good-sized tank of nitrous oxide. Adapted by Suzanne Allain from her own novel and directed by Emma Holly Jones, making her feature debut, it is a romantic Regency romp in the diverse, postcolonial “alt-history” universe popularised by Bridgerton on TV. And casting people of colour as fictional British aristocrats in the declining years of George III need be no more of an affectation than having non-white people play factual kings in Shakespeare’s history plays.

This good-natured entertainment is certainly more watchable than the wince-makingly smug new version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion on Netflix, which misjudges the same approach. Mr Malcolm’s List understands its parameters and limitations and the value of leaving the fourth wall unbroken, and maybe above all it understands that Bridgertonian intrigue is in the brisker tradition of Georgette Heyer, not Austen. Everyone involved takes a demure yet also gleeful pleasure in the ridiculous bonnets and preposterous bows, the furbelows, foppery and unfeasibly tall hats.

Zawe Ashton, having starred in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal on Broadway and created one of the great sitcom characters with Vod in Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s TV comedy Fresh Meat, brings a subversive satirical force to the character of Julia Thistlewaite, a highly strung young woman who is husband-hunting in fashionable London. She has been asked on a date to see The Barber of Seville in the company of society’s wealthiest and most eligible bachelor, the Hon Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) who is bored by her nervy and untutored chatter. When he spurns her, Julia is outraged to hear it is because she did not measure up to his secret list of 10 bullet-pointed attributes for an ideal bride. To get her own back, she invites her best friend, penniless clergyman’s daughter Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), up to town to ensnare Malcolm, by faking the 10 comely attributes from his list. Meanwhile handsome ex-cavalryman Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James) seems to have taken a shine to Selina as well; he is so tight-trousered his fly button will surely have someone’s eye out.

It is all played absolutely straight, and yet also with a cake-icing of irony, almost like a play by Ernie Wise: observing the decorum, yet also hyperaware of both the surreal bizarreness of its conventions and the deadly seriousness in which they are traditionally represented. The diverse casting is a kind of distancing effect, although that wears off, and isn’t obviously striving for modern relevance. What is also of interest is the way this film flips the gender roles in the romcom tradition of playing a trick on someone but then falling in love with them. In, say, 10 Things I Hate About You, Heath Ledger’s tough guy is secretly paid to date Julia Stiles but then develops real feelings for her. Here, Pinto’s character hoodwinks Mr Malcolm but then comes to be mortified at what she has done and how she has hurt his feelings.

Mr Malcolm’s List has no great ambitions other than to amuse. But that is always harder than it looks.

• Mr Malcolm’s List is released on 26 August in cinemas.