A tepid Regency-era romance, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” hinges on Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), a wealthy, aloof bachelor looking for a woman who meets his 10-point checklist for a suitable mate. The trouble starts when Malcolm rejects Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), a singleton who fails Point No. 4 — “converses in a sensible fashion” — and is publicly humiliated by Malcolm, who yawns behind her back. Vowing vengeance, Julia schemes to manipulate the snob into falling in love with her childhood friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), a country naïf whom Julia presents, through bits of trickery, as Malcolm’s dream bride. (In one scene, Selina is made to look like a piano virtuoso.) Selina doesn’t so much agree to her bossy chum’s plan as succumb to it, like a leaf drifting downstream.
But the film is too soft at heart to condemn Julia as a manor-bred mean girl. (It might be more fun if it wasn’t.) The early sequences are spritzed with a whiff of pity for this society’s anxious would-be wives. The screenplay, by Suzanne Allain, adapting her own novel of the same name, seems to suggest that a marriage-minded society breeds shallow, superficial girls. Emma Holly Jones, the director, apparently agrees, layering images of pretty birds in cages next to shots of desperate debutantes in pink-plumed hats. In a scene at an opera, Jones shows that the young women are too preoccupied with gossip to pay attention to the soul-stirring Rossini onstage.
Jones pointedly sets key romantic scenes during horse auctions and board games, but runs out of things to say beyond the well-trodden suggestion that courtship is equal parts commerce and chess. Once it has established sympathy for the embittered Julia — whom Ashton plays with a marvelously light touch, even when forced into heavy-handed scenarios — the film is stuck doubling back on its own social critique by hustling to resolve the various love plots until everyone’s paired off and all insights into the status of women have been tidily swept under the Persian rugs.
Pinto’s Selina is judicious and kind — and as interesting as a plain meringue. Her duped suitor, Malcolm, has little personality beyond his seeming to approach every ball as though the dance floor were made of hot lava. We are frequently told that he’s arrogant. The counterargument is that most of the items on Malcolm’s list — be truthful, be charitable, read books — are reasonable. A more innovative period comedy could be made from his frustration trying to find these basics among the upper classes.
Instead, Dirisu’s wary gravitas allows Malcolm, ostensibly the main man, to be outshone by Theo James’s Captain Henry Ossory, a flippant, mustachioed love rival who threatens to win Selina for himself — and strides off with the audience’s affection in the process. The score, by Amelia Warner, announces when to titter and when to swoon. In its cleverest flourish, it accompanies the ladies’ marital campaigns with a rollicking military march.
Mr. Malcolm’s List
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.