‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script

‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House

Director Emma Holly Jones on creating a romantic comedy-period hybrid with inclusivity at its heart

Monday 15 August 2022   By Piya Sinha-Roy   Photography by Bertram Knight   Shot at The Ned NoMad 

In 2016, aspiring filmmaker Emma Holly Jones came across the period romantic comedy script for Mr. Malcolm’s List being performed by a diverse cast on The Black List Table Reads podcast. The episode was flagged by Black List founder Franklin Leonard, who knew Jones’s love of romcoms and period pieces (Jones and Leonard got married in June this year), and she was instantly hooked. Having recently seen Hamilton on Broadway, described by its writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as ‘the story of America then, told by America now’, Jones said she began to realise just how white-centric the British period genre was. 

‘It sparked a lot of research and I had to ask myself, “When did England start to become the diverse melting pot of cultures it is today?” And I could not answer that question because I’ve never been taught this,’ says Jones. ‘The only visual representation I have of it is movies, which is not an accurate representation of the world.’

Born and raised in Surrey, England, Jones said she knew when she finished her A-levels that she wanted to focus on her love for cinema. And Soho House has been a crucial part of her journey. As a young woman, she took a job as a receptionist and worked part time for many years across different locations, crediting the company for teaching her about the benefits of great customer service. ‘A good boss creates an environment where people feel safe and they can be who they are. Running a film set of the size that I did, there’s no doubt in my mind that the things I learnt from [Soho House] made me a better director,’ she says. 

Shortly after finishing school, Jones moved to Los Angeles and immersed herself in improvisation, making her first short film with her friends from that community. It would then take nearly a decade for Jones to make Mr. Malcolm’s List, which she first conceived as a short film starring Sope Dirisu, Gemma Chan, Freida Pinto, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Made for $120,000, the short film drew more than two million views and was picked up for a full feature with all except Chan (who had scheduling conflicts) reprising their roles.
‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House
‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House
‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House
Out in UK theatres on Friday 26 August, Mr. Malcolm’s List plays with the romantic comedy and period tropes, flipping the script both on and behind the screen. The story is centered on Mr Jeremiah Malcolm (Dirisu), an eligible bachelor in early 19th-century London, who is underwhelmed by the potential suitors that don’t measure up to his list of qualities that he believes a good wife must possess. Unfortunately for Malcolm, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. After ruthlessly jilting – or, in contemporary parlance, ‘ghosting’ – Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton), she decides to orchestrate a complex revenge plan, enlisting the help of her childhood best friend Selina Dalton (Pinto) and brother Lord Cassidy (Jackson-Cohen). 

Though the film plays within the regimented framework of Regency-era courting rituals, it also echoes present-day dating complexities; Malcolm’s list of partner requirements in particular, which should, perhaps, not look unfamiliar to some modern-day daters. ‘Throughout history, everyone’s been looking for love, connection and partnership, but with the advent of dating apps we can really tangibly see and feel the quest to find the person,’ Dirisu explains. ‘Whether it’s the person for now, the person for the future or the person forever, depending on your attitude towards it, I think it’s a universal theme.’

Playing the stoic and handsome bachelor, Dirisu was drawn to the deep-seated fears in Malcolm’s character. ‘He’s desperately afraid of falling completely head-over-heels in love with the wrong person, but also there is a vulnerability that one has to show if one’s going to find true love,’ the actor explains. ‘There’s an element of insecurity that I found really fascinating with him, and that’s where I based a lot of his defensiveness, in that self-protection as opposed to the feeling of being better than anybody else.’

Mr. Malcolm’s List was filmed in just 27 days in Ireland during the height of the pandemic, for under $7m – a tight budget for an elaborate period piece – and the process tested Jones. To add another complication, the actor originally cast to play Julia dropped out just two weeks before filming, leaving the production in limbo. ‘I think going through that week of hell and stress was because the film gods out there were pushing me to make the right decision, and I hadn’t made it yet,’ she says.
‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House
‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House
The right decision came in the form of Zawe Ashton, who agreed to play Julia but with her own idiosyncratic spin. ‘I could really understand the rest of her arc, because she goes on to do some quite desperate things and it’s because she’s feeling left behind,’ Ashton says of her character. ‘She’s also feeling entitled because of her position and jealousy towards her friend, and I just saw the opportunity to walk the line between vulnerability and antagonism. I always feel very happy when I walk that line, as I think those are the most complex characters.’

The biggest challenge for Ashton was to make Julia, and her Machiavellian plot, relatable. The actor dove into her comedic roots, and Jones and Dirisu credit Ashton for injecting the film with a fresh dose of fun. ‘Julia can read as extremely acerbic on the page, and I just thought some of it was just way too unkind,’ says Ashton. ‘If Julia felt too poisonous, I think people would have been really turned off, so I had to do a lot of work to find the comedy beats to apply to the film and to her. And what’s lovely is it feels like it unlocked so many of the comedic moments in other characters as well.’

‘She steals the show,’ Jones adds, on the subject of Ashton’s performance. ‘She’s incredible. I remember watching her on set and being just blown away.’

For decades, British period dramas were a popular pipeline for British talent to get on the Hollywood radar, but as they were centered on exclusively white characters and casts, it prevented BIPOC actors from that same access. But now, as stories such as Mr. Malcolm’s List and Bridgerton signal a sea change in a genre that has excluded non-white stories and actors, it’s Jones’s hope that the floodgates will open. 

‘It’s important that people keep doing it,’ she says. ‘We need to make sure that younger generations of Hollywood and the younger generations of audiences don’t even think about it.’
‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ boldly flips the script | Soho House
To book a screening of Mr. Malcolm’s List and enjoy a Q&A with the director on Wednesday 24 August at White City House in London, click here

Mr. Malcolm’s List is released in UK cinemas on Friday 26 August by Vertigo Releasing. In the US, watch it on ROW8, Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV, Vudu Movie and TV Store or Redbox.
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