Years before Bridgerton and the Regency-era fashion moment it helped inspire, director Emma Holly Jones was dreaming of an early 19th century romantic comedy with a diverse cast.
Inspiration isn’t always easy to pinpoint, but in this instance, Jones can trace the spark back to a fortuitous week in 2015. While listening to the Blacklist podcast, which spotlights unproduced screenplays, she heard Suzanne Allain’s script for Mr Malcolm’s List, a lively Jane Austen-inspired romp about a high society marriage market and a woman seeking to get revenge on the picky suitor who rejected her.
As someone who was named after an Austen heroine herself, it stood out. Then, a few days later, she caught an early production of Hamilton.
“I came out of that show and my mind was just racing,” Jones said. “Mr Malcolm’s List in the style of Hamilton.”
It would take about seven years to get it to the big screen, however. The film, starring Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu, Zawe Ashton and Theo James, arrives in US theaters Friday from Bleecker Street.
Knowing that it might be difficult to finance a period piece from a first-time director, they started with a short film as a proof of concept. Many of the actors from the short, including Pinto as the scorned woman’s friend, reprise their roles in the feature. For most, it was an opportunity they rarely get.
“I always loved the Jane Austen period… those mannerisms, the costumes and the corsets,” said Pinto. “But I’d never been part of a world like that in my own acting career.”
Released by Refinery29 in early 2019, the short Mr Malcolm’s List was a hit and they were then certain that they had something that people wanted to see. To date it’s been viewed over two million times. Pinto even decided to executive produce the feature.
But there were still obstacles to come, from the pandemic to casting. To play Mr Malcolm, a handsome earl’s son with considerable inherited wealth who is the catch of the season, casting director Tamara-Lee Notcutt introduced Jones to Sope Dirisu.
“From the moment I met him, I was like, he’s Malcolm or I don’t do the movie,” Jones said. “I’m just the most stubborn human.”
Dirisu wasn’t a name at the time, but he had that Mr Darcy quality that she needed. Jones put her foot down even when faced with mounting pressures to cast a more recognisable face.
The British actor, who is Black and has become more known recently with roles in Gangs of London and a BAFTA nomination, reveled in the opportunity to be in a historical period piece “not as a person who was owned,” he said.
“I have played former slaves before and, for me, it was really important that that didn’t become a feature of my career,” Dirisu said. “I’ve seen lots of my white colleagues and counterparts do a period drama. You don’t get the same opportunities as a global majority actor.”
Zawe Ashton had also always dreamed of playing a character in the novels she grew up loving, by Austen and Dickens and the Brontes. When another actor dropped out weeks before filming, Ashton was approached to play Julia Thistlewaite, the woman Mr Malcolm’s rejects. She had about 24 hours to read the script, make a decision and fly to Ireland to quarantine for two weeks before cameras started to roll, but she was on board.
“There are counterparts of mine out here who are suffering from bonnet fatigue because they’ve done so many period dramas,” Ashton said. “And so many of those dramas helped launch their careers at a very, very formative time. And I’m here thinking, ‘That’s so weird because I kind of feel like I could be Jane Eyre.’”
When they all began digging deeper into the era, they’d come to find that England in the early 19th century wasn’t nearly as whitewashed as films might have us believe.
“It’s breaking open an aspirational genre,” Ashton said. “There is so much historical inaccuracy in every period drama that you see, whether it’s the costumes or the music or the cadence of speaking. We’re not supposed to be watching documentaries. We’re supposed to be reconnecting to a bygone era and understanding our own lives by way of revisiting the past.”
The global pandemic slowed the progress of Mr Malcolm’s List, which was put on hold when everything shut down. Then while they were waiting for the go-ahead to shoot the feature, Bridgerton happened in December 2020. Though distinctly different in tone, the Shonda Rhimes-produced series featured a diverse cast dating and gossiping in Regency-era England. It quickly became a global phenomenon and one of Netflix’s most-watched shows.
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“At first I was a bit worried, honestly,” Jones said. “But I think it almost opened up an audience and opened up the genre as a whole to different countries and different age groups. If you look on TikTok, there’s all these young people who love Regency drama and make their own costumes. I think Bridgerton has played a huge part in that.”
And who came first is beside the point, Jones said. Other recent films that have taken similar approaches to casting, including Amma Asante’s Belle and Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, and she hopes that there will be many, many more. Plus, when it comes down to it, Mr Malcolm’s List is supposed to be fun.
“I’m really hoping that this film helps elevate people’s moods,” Pinto said. “We’re living in a very, very testing time. There’s a lot of sadness. There’s a lot to fight for. And I’m just hoping that this gives people two hours of escape from their reality.”