Years before “Bridgerton” and the Regency-era fashion moment it inspired, director Emma Holly Jones dreamed of an early 19th-century romantic comedy with a diverse cast.
Inspiration isn’t always easy to pin down, but in this case, Jones can trace the spark to a fortuitous week in 2015. While listening to the “Blacklist” podcast, which spotlights unproduced screenplays, she heard Suzanne Allain’s screenplay for “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” an animated Jane Austen-inspired film about a high-society marriage bargain and a woman seeking revenge on the difficult suitor who rejected her. As a Person who herself was named after an Austen heroine, it stood out. Then, a few days later, she caught an early production of “Hamilton.”
“I walked out of that show and my mind was just racing,” Jones said. “‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ in the style of ‘Hamilton.’ »
However, it would take about seven years to bring it to the big screen. The film, starring Freida Pinto, Sopé Dìrísù, Zawe Ashton and Theo James, arrives in US theaters on Friday from Bleecker Street.
Knowing that it might be difficult to fund a period piece from a fledgling 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’ve always loved the Jane Austen period…these mannerisms, the costumes and the corsets,” Pinto said. “But I had never been part of a world like this in my own acting career.”
Released by Refinery29 in early 2019, the short ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List’ was a hit and they were sure they had something people wanted to see. To date, it has been viewed over 2 million times. Pinto even decided to produce the feature film.
But there were still hurdles ahead, from the pandemic to casting. To play Mr. Malcolm, a handsome earl son with considerable inherited wealth who is the catch of the season, casting director Tamara-Lee Notcutt introduced Jones to Sopé Dìrísù.
“From the moment I met him, I was like, it’s Malcolm or I’m not doing the movie,” Jones said. “I’m just the most stubborn human.”
Dìrísù wasn’t a name at the time, but he had that Mr. Darcy quality she needed. Jones put his foot down even in the face of mounting pressure to put on a more recognizable face.
The British actor, who is black and has risen to prominence recently with roles in ‘Gangs of London’ and a BAFTA nomination, reveled in the opportunity to be in a historical period piece ‘not in as a person who belonged,” he said.
“I’ve played former slaves before, and for me it was really important that it didn’t become a feature of my career,” Dìrísù said. “I’ve seen a lot of my white colleagues and counterparts do period drama. You don’t have the same opportunities as a global majority player.
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 rejects. She had about 24 hours to read the script, make a decision and fly to Ireland to self-quarantine for two weeks before the cameras started rolling, but she was on board.
“There are counterparts of mine here who suffer from hood 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, “This is so weird because I feel like I could be Jane Eyre.”
When they all started digging deeper into the era, they came to find that early 19th century England wasn’t as whitewashed as the movies might have made us believe.
“It opens up an ambitious genre,” Ashton said. “There are so many historical inaccuracies in every period drama you see, whether it’s the costumes, the music, or the cadence of the spoken word. We’re not supposed to watch documentaries. We’re supposed to reconnect to a times gone by and understand our own lives by revisiting the past.
The global pandemic slowed progress on ‘Mr. Malcolm’s List,’ which was put on hold when everything shut down. Then, as they waited for the green light to shoot the feature, ‘Bridgerton’ went on hold. produced in December 2020. Although distinctly different in tone, the Shonda Rhimes produced series featured a diverse cast dating and chatting in Regency-era England. It quickly became a global phenomenon and one of Netflix’s most-watched shows.
“At first I was a little 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’ played a huge role in that.
And who came first isn’t the question, Jones said. Other recent films that have taken similar approaches to casting include Amma Asante’s ‘Belle’ and Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’, and she hopes there will be many, much more. Plus, at the end of the day, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is meant to be fun.
“I really hope this movie will help lift people’s moods,” Pinto said. “We live in a very, very trying time. There is a lot of sadness. There is something to fight for. And I just hope it gives people two hours of escape from their reality.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr