I’m a list maker. I make lists in my head, but I wish wrote them down more often so I wouldn’t forget things. I was dating, I did make a list but that’s now how I actually met my husband. Looking at the titular list, I’d never make the cut because apparently no one worthy of my surname has an even temper. I also should mention that when I read romance novels in my middle school years, I preferred ones with theft or murder involved. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” has neither of those things, although some might claim that this style of multicultural casting is killing our perception of the Regency era society. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” does raise some intriguing questions but none of these are asked nor answered in this ersatz romantic foray into Jane Austen’s world of Regency era romance.
I’m less offended by multicultural casting in stage productions although I did object to multiracial casting in the “South Pacific” because it dulled the edge of the musical which looked at racism through two different American characters: A White man and a White woman.
With “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” the snobbery and hierarchal system cannot be fully realized with the casting of minorities from Africa and Asia as lords and ladies and high society hopefuls. Further, in the case of people of Asian descent, there is a curious crafting and submerging of the racial question which I will address later.
The film begins in 1802 England at Mrs. Finch’s Ladies Academy where a young Julia Thistlewaite (Aisling Doyle) is parting with a young Selina Dalton (Tia Ann Jain). Only a view of the facade and the bedroom of the parting girls is revealed so we know little else of the girls’ friendship in this academy. Julia makes Selina swears she will write a letter every week, but Julia confesses that once in society she’ll be far too busy to write back every week. Still, Julia proclaims they will remain friends and she will send for Selina after she has fallen in love.
In 1818 (the year after Austen’s death), the tall and broad-shouldered honorable Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dìrísù) is the biggest catch of London society, declared the most eligible bachelor because although he is not the eldest son of an earl, a maternal aunt left him the bulk of her sizable fortune (£20,000 or $24,051 a year) along with a large country estate in Kent. He has escorted the now adult Julia Zawe Ashton) to the opera. Julia is in her fourth season, but not yet found a match. Mr. Malcolm doubtlessly finds her tiresome.
Julia declares, “I do wonder why they make so many foreign operas; we are in England.” She does not know what the opera in question, “The Barber of Seville,” was by Gioachino Rossini (libretto in Italian by Cesare Sterbini). “The Barber of Seville” is about two lovers and the triumph of their love against her guardian’s intent to marry her for her large dowry.
When Mr. Malcolm asks Julia about Corn Laws of 1815 (tariffs and restrictions on corn, barley, wheat and other grains which caused the price of these grains to increase that were designed to protect English farmers against less expensive imported grains), Julia is clueless and instead of admitting so, she blunders on, thinking they must be related to nutrition. When Mr. Malcolm fails to call on her again, she receives a letter with a caricature of herself as the casualty of cooled affections as Mr. Malcolm moves on to his next potential mate. Yet one intuitively believes that had the caricature been about someone else, Julia would have found malicious joy in it.
Embarrassed and believing that her prospects for marriage have been dashed, Julia first consults with her cousin, Cassie–Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and after learning about the titular list, enlists her old friend, Selina (now Freida Pinto), for her revenge.
Requirements for a Wife
by Jeremiah Malcolm
- Handsome of countenance and figure
- Graceful and well mannered
- Educates herself by extensive reading
- Converses in a sensible fashion
- Charitable and altruistic
- Has genteel relations from good society
- Candid, truthful and guileless
- Possesses musical or artistic talent
- Amiable and even-tempered
- A forgiving nature
Selina has been the companion of an elderly widow in Bath, but the widow recently died leaving Selina without a position and back home in Sussex with her vicar father, mother and her large family of siblings. She has just turned down a third proposal from the much older man when she is summoned to London by Julia. Julia, with help from Cassie, begins training Selina to be Mr. Malcolm’s perfect prospect although Selina says, “I’m surprised that Mr. Malcolm desires a wife when he could just as easily hire a performing bear.”
When Selina has captured Mr. Malcolm’s affections, Julia wants Selina to spring her own list upon her suitor and find him wanting. Julia says, “That would be a perfect sort of poetic justice.”
When the plan is in action, as one might expect, a complication arises. As it happens an old friend of Mr. Malcolm, Captain Henry Ossory (Theo James) of the 18th regiment, comes upon Malcolm and Julia while they are at the national gallery. The captain happens to be a relation to the late widow to whom Selina had been a companion. The late widow thought the captain and Selina would be the perfect match. He advises them not to miss “Venus and Adonis” which I’m guessing is this painting. That’s a bit risqué, but how does that fit into this film?
People of East Asian descent are also part of this multicultural casting. Nagoya-born Naoko Mori plays Mrs. Thistlewaite, Julia’s mother, and Korean American Ashley Park, plays Gertie Covington, a troublesome relative of Selina. Dawn Bradfield plays Mrs. Dalton and Paul Tylak, Mr. Dalton.
Even with the issue of color-blind casting aside, the storyline suffers. Director Emma Holly Jones is working from a screenplay by the author Suzanne Allain based on her novel of the same name. Allain’s only other screenplay credit on IMDb is a 2019 short, “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” From the same source, Jones has only five directing credits, with this film being her first feature-length project. Jones also directed short which the film is based on. For a first feature-length film, “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” is a commendable effort, but it falls short of being a good film. The camera movement is static, more like a television movie than a theatrical film. The timing could have been a bit tighter. The lighting and costuming choices are not always spot on and lighting is one of those things on my list.
There’s nothing attractive about Zawe Ashton’s vengeful Julia. She carries on a lopsided relationship with her oldest friend Selina. Outside of Selina and her cousin Cassie, she seems to have no other friends. She is vapid. She seems to have little knowledge of opera and didn’t properly prepare for her outing by learning about Rossini. She is not interested in political affairs which would not be unusual for a lady of her time.
Nor is Dìrísù’s Mr. Malcolm a charming hero of this romance, beyond what we’re told–his fortune and his grand country estate. The script doesn’t tell us why he is so interested in Corn Laws. Is this a mere test? What does he do when he is not courting young ladies? The most attractive characters are Pinto’s sensible Selina and Theo James’ Captain, but one isn’t sure why Selina remains friends with Julia or why the captain would trust her. Under Jones’ direction, I’m not convinced that the final pairings are meant to be.
I haven’t read the novel, but the film lacks the kind of pointed social commentary and wit of the best films based on the works of novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) or, from a different period, playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). To remind myself, I began watching the 2007 “Northanger Abbey,” a sly commentary on the dangers of taking gothic romances too seriously.
The Regency era officially ran from 1811 to 1820, when George, Prince of Wales, took charge of royal functions (Regency Act 1811) due to his father’s (George III) mental illness. When his father died in 1820, the prince became George IV. The Regency era is sometimes extended to 1937 when Victorian became queen. George IV was actually succeeded by his brother William as William IV, but William’s reign lasted only from 26 June 1830 to 20 June 1837.
The status of African and Asian Indians during this time period was undergoing change. Slavery in the British Empire was abolished by the Slave Trade Act 1807, but the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 brought the gradual abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire. And yet the concept of empire and imperialism brought the exploitation of peoples from other nations. The period of direct British rule over what is now India and Pakistan ran from 1858 to 1947. Previously the British East India company had managed the region, but that had led to the so-called Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
There were Black aristocracy.
- Bridgerton’s Black Aristocracy Isn’t Entirely Fiction: Black aristocrats did exist… they’re just not in your history books.
- Introducing Some People of Color Living in Jane Austen’s England
- Queen Charlotte (by Mario de Valdes y Cocom)
- Real-life queen of ‘Bridgerton’ wasn’t biracial —but she was a badass
- Was this Britain’s first black queen?
There’s some contention as to whether people who were Moors were Black as in Sub-Saharan African. Valdes refers to the ancestor in question as “Moorish,” but the Moors were from North Africa. “Of mixed Arab, Spanish, and Amazigh (Berber) origins, the Moors created the Islamic Andalusian civilization and subsequently settled as refugees in the Maghreb (in the region of North Africa) between the 11th and 17th centuries, ” according to Britannica. Britannica further states, “Today, the term Moor is used to designate the predominant Arab-Amazigh ethnic group in Mauritania (which makes up more than two-thirds of the country’s population) and the small Arab-Amazigh minority in Mali.”
The intriguing question I alluded to above is: Are Asian Indians Black? And what of North Africa and West Asia?
Freida Pinto was born in Mumbai. Dìrísù is British Nigerian; his parents are Nigerian. Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s father is Egyptian Jewish. His family were Orthodox Jews. Zawa Ashton is part Ugandan by her mother and her father is English.
Suzanne Allain is reportedly from Talahassee, Florida. Emma Holly Jones was born in England and lives in both Los Angeles and London. The US Census Bureau has been petitioned for separate Middle Eastern and North African from the White category, but as of now, people from North Africa and West Asia are considered White. In social settings, however, Asian Indians and other South Asians are sometimes considered Black according to these studies.
- The Racial Self-Identification of South Asians in the United States
- To Be White, Black, or Brown? South Asian Americans and the Race-Color Distinction
- DNA tests reveal Prince William’s Indian ancestry
- I’m Bengali and I’m Black–in the Same Way that My Parents Were
Yet at the recent Academy Awards ceremony, Chris Rock referred to an Asian Indian American man, Joseph Patel, as “White” when Patel along with three others won Oscars for “Summer of Soul.” In actuality, none of the four men would have been White enough for White Nationalists. Currently (until 3 July 2022), the Mark Taper Forum has a play, “King James,” about two friends, one White and one Black. The playwright, however, is Asian Indian on his father’s side. And while the Hollywood Foreign Press Association came under fire for not having any “Black” members, it did have members from India, including one former president, as well as members from Bangladesh and North Africa.
There is racism toward Asian Indians felt in the US and the UK and that makes them not really White. But in Regency era England as in the US of that era, there was plenty of prejudice against other White people such as the Spanish and closer to home, Irish Catholics. I do watch “Downton Abbey” which has dealt with thefts, murder, manners and prejudice. And I suspect that even in today’s world, people make lists when searching for a significant other. As lists go, Mr. Malcolm’s list is not so outrageous, but do Selina and Mr. Malcolm have any real interests in common? Surely there should be something more than knowing about Corn Laws.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” operates in an English aristocracy that sees no color, no ethnic or religious animosities. It is a frothy romance existing outside of reality and without any bite of social commentary that makes it tedious and the lack of truly exceptional clothing and charming characters makes it a boring dressed up predictable romance. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” was released on 1 July 2022.