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film review

Ṣọpẹ Dirisu as Mr. Malcolm and Freida Pinto as Selina Dalton in Mr. Malcolm's List.Ross Ferguson/levelFILM

Mr. Malcolm’s List

Directed by Emma Holly Jones

Written by Suzanne Allain

Starring Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu and Zawe Ashton

Classification PG; 115 minutes

Opens in theatres July 1

If Fire Island, the second season of Netflix’s Bridgerton and the upcoming Netflix adaptation of Persuasion are any indication, the idea of recasting Jane Austen with racialized people has been a smashing success. Mr. Malcolm’s List is the fourth screen production this year to put a diverse cast at the forefront of a frothy romantic comedy that reflects regency-era values of gender and class. (In Fire Island, which recasts Pride & Prejudice with an ensemble of gay Asian men vacationing at the notorious queer hot spot, these values are tinged with poppers and GHB, but still.)

This year′s remakes of Austen-esque narratives boasting colour-blind casting are so effective, one wonders how past adaptations of Emma or Pride & Prejudice could have been, had, say, Salma Hayek or Thandiwe Newton received the opportunity to play their own Lizzie Bennets and Emma Woodhouses. Luckily for us, the flawed but charming Mr. Malcolm’s List has Indian actress Freida Pinto as a winsome romantic lead, finally receiving her flowers in a perfectly matched role.

While Mr. Malcolm’s List may have its own original IP – it’s adapted from the 2009 novel by Suzanne Allain, with the author also working as the film’s screenwriter – its construction is pure, uncut Austen. Wholeheartedly ripping off several elements from the Austen playbook (with inevitable Bridgerton comparisons snapping at its heels in the camerawork and feel by first-time director Emma Holly Jones), the plot centres on a quest to win the heart of a standoffish, yet highly eligible bachelor in 1810s England.

The titular Jeremy Malcolm is our Mr. Darcy. Here, he’s played by brusque British-Nigerian actor Sope Dirisu, whose puppy dog adulation for the film’s most deserving heroine Selina (Pinto) could melt the heart of Steve Bannon. Snooty and awkward, Mr. Malcolm has high standards, comparing the kind of woman he will marry to the class of racing horses he keeps in his stables, a metaphor that is as gross as it is telling about his maturity level and experience.

The plot is kick-started after Selina’s best friend, entitled upper-class singleton Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), attends the opera with Mr. Malcolm, only to have her romantic advances rejected and gossiped about publicly. With her humongous ego bruised, Julia sets upon a scheme to have Selina, the daughter of a lowly country priest, woo Mr. Malcolm only to break his heart upon his marriage proposal. Their secret weapon is Mr. Malcolm’s titular list, which details his dream girl, who possesses everything from an awareness of political news to the ability to play a musical instrument.

Naturally hilarity and heartbreak ensue as every superficial item on Mr. Malcolm’s list is inevitably checked off. Still, Julia finds herself feeling vulnerable as she sees Mr. Malcolm’s gruff exterior warming to Selina’s inherent virtues. Feeling further victimized instead of vindicated by her own marriage plot, Julia overlooks an eligible bachelor, Captain Henry Ossory (Divergent’s Theo James, in casting that finally demonstrates his charisma) in the process.

Although occasionally delightful, Mr. Malcolm’s List has a bad case of main character syndrome that can make it a frustrating watch.Ross Ferguson/levelFILM

Although occasionally delightful, Mr. Malcolm’s List has a bad case of main character syndrome that can make it a frustrating watch. Austen created irrepressible portraits of flawed, entitled heroines humbled by their quest for love. But Julia’s mincing words and cruel treatment of Selina only serve to alienate audiences from her story. While Ashton is a smart and appealing performer, she has trouble humanizing a character who needed more development, especially when trading lines with the incandescent Pinto. Instead of taking a page from the gold standard of any Austen adaptation, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, this film centres on a heroine who feels sociopathic instead of merely misguided. We don’t root for her to win her match.

Rather, it’s Pinto who elevates this faux-Austin property into something worth swooning over. Pinto at a masquerade ball smiling shyly at her paramour. Pinto in a carriage, dejected by love. Pinto standing on the moors as a man finally summons the courage to show he’s capable of human emotion. It’s always been Pinto, and yet why hasn’t she been constantly appearing on our screens? If this year′s slew of Austen adaptations stands to teach us anything, it is that the rules no longer apply when it comes to casting traditional narratives.

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