The British costume drama is a hearty perennial. Its quaint rules of decorum and fidelity to a fixed social order simmer with narrative tension. The genre recently won over Netflix viewers with “Bridgerton,” a sex-infused soap, but even in staider form, the Regency era never fails to conjure an enchanting aura.
The period trifle “Mr. Malcolm’s List” seizes on this mystique, with some updates. Directed by Emma Holly Jones, the comedy of manners takes place during courting season in London. Young suitors and ladies attend dances, ride horses, and trade yearning sidelong glances. In her feature directorial debut, Jones makes enthusiastic use of Georgian outfits, decor, and settings.
These historical embroideries — as well as an appealing, diverse cast — might make for splendid cinema if only they weren’t trapped in a confused story line that starts as a revenge scheme before veering into romance.
Recycling themes from “Dangerous Liaisons” and “John Tucker Must Die,” the movie follows two young women as they exact retribution on a snooty bachelor. The more Machiavellian of the pair is Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), who early on endures a public snubbing by the coveted Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). Vexed, Julia summons an old school chum, Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), and enlists her in a vindictive plot to beguile Malcolm and then break his heart as payback.
This central trio is made up of familiar stock characters. Julia is spiky and vain, a queen bee with an attitude. Mr. Malcolm is a stiff mimeograph of Mr. Darcy. And Selina might as well be wearing a white veil the whole movie; that’s how demure and pure of heart she is written to be. (Suzanne Allain wrote the movie’s screenplay adapted from her own novel of the same name.)
Malcolm in particular is a pesky creation. As our romantic lead, he possesses neither the rakish charm of a playboy nor the tortured fervor of an antihero. Rather, his chief pastime involves projecting a constant stream of pretension and scorn. On a date with Julia, Malcolm tests her political fluency with an obscure query, and then smirks when she stumbles. Later, he ridicules a doltish but harmless widow and expresses his relief that he’s not courting one of her relatives. How dreamy.
Basest of all is Malcolm’s titular list. Early in the movie, the bachelor tells a buddy that he keeps a checklist of qualifications for his bride-to-be. In order to earn Malcolm’s sustained affections, a woman must be attractive, graceful, politically aware, musically inclined, and so on. Selina, flatly imagined as she is, meets many of Malcolm’s criteria on her own, and as she carries out Julia’s ruse, she has no problem duping him into love.
The movie shines brightest when it remembers to be a comedy. As Julia, Ashton is deliciously tart. And Julia’s cousin, the feckless Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), is amusing as a flunky for Julia’s demands. They leave one wishing Pinto and Dìrísù were given equal chance to exercise their chops.
In “John Tucker Must Die,” none of the women who settle their scores with John Tucker end the movie in his arms. The same would feel fair for our haughty list-maker. Yet as Selina spends more time with Malcolm, she somehow grows smitten. It’s an odd direction to take the story. The man is dull and draped in red flags, and if we weren’t busy rooting for the gals to strike a match to the fabric, he would be unworthy of our attention.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” hits more bumps in its framing of Selina. Her alliance with Julia, a potential bright spot in the story, winds up playing second fiddle to her heart-eyes for Malcolm. “I served him the perfect wife on a silver platter,” Lord Cassidy declares at one point. It’s a problematic notion. A paragon of bourgeois virtue, Selina deserves a better outcome than posting up as Malcolm’s “perfect wife” — particularly since her fulfillment of his sexist, impossible standards only serves to reinforce them.
The whole lot is enough to send a person to the bookshelf for a rejuvenating dose of “Pride and Prejudice.” Where is Elizabeth Bennet when you need her?
MR. MALCOLM’S LIST
Directed by Emma Holly Jones. Written by Suzanne Allain. Starring Freida Pinto, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, Zawe Ashton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Theo James. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community, suburbs. 117 minutes. PG (gently cruel intentions).
Natalia Winkelman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @nataliawinke.