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In 2019, Refinery29 brought to life a short film titled “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” based on Suzanne Allain’s novel of the same name. While period dramas until that point had been done time and again — don’t remind me just how many Jane Austen film adaptations there have been — they had never reflected anything other than the white people centered in that genre. In just 11 minutes, the film turned the genre on its head. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” cast Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionare”) as Selina across from Sope Dirisu (“The Halcyon”) as the titular Mr. Malcolm, accompanied by Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Eternals”) in a romantic comedy set in the 19th century Regency era. Mind you, this was before the “Bridgerton” craze. 

At the time, it was groundbreaking, yet divisive rather than revolutionary. Dirisu commented in an interview with Willow and Thatch in 2019, “There was Asian aristocracy; there was African aristocracy in England. They just seem to be painted out from the history we are given. So it’s just wonderful that in this production we have a historical drama, where we see people from those diverse backgrounds.”

While the diverse casting shook things up, its premise follows typical Regency romance plots: The well-off and much desired Mr. Malcolm keeps a list of qualities he wants to find in a wife, but after rejecting Chan’s Ms. Thistlewaite, he becomes the target of her schemes to teach him a lesson about arrogance. 

This week, that short film finally hits theaters as a full theatrical production. A project four years in the making, the first 10 minutes closely follows the short film, with the replacement of Chan with Zawe Ashton (“Fresh Meat,” “Velvet Buzzsaw”) as Julia Thistlewaite, the latest in a long line of jilted ladies seeking to marry Mr. Malcolm. Other newcomers to the cast include Ashley Park and Theo James. 

Mochi had the opportunity to chat with Freida Pinto about diverse representation, staying true to the culture of the actors, and romance on screen. 

While “colorblind casting” has become more popular due to the likes of Shonda Rhimes and productions like “Hamilton,” Pinto is quick to correct that, “You can’t be blind to color. You’re casting people not because you want to be ‘colorblind,’ but casting people because they’re the right people for the job.”

She goes on to say that it is not simply putting people of color in roles meant for white actors, in that the role not only fits the actor but the role is fitted to the actor. The film does a good job of sharing cultural details rather than forcing the issue. For instance, Pinto’s character Selina is seen wearing a paisley print on her first date and Mr. Malcolm reflecting his respect for her culture adorned in paisleys as well — the paisley print having its roots in Indian and Persian origins. 

“Another example is when Mr. Malcolm is explaining how he was raised: he references a quote that he was taught by speaking it in Yoruba, in his native language,” Pinto says. “It is not necessary for us to justify our presence and our culture to the nth degree and drill it into the ground. We’re just being in this movie, like we should be allowed to be.” 

There is no reason, as Pinto mentions, to “justify” our presence. It’s subtle but powerful to see how our cultures can be respected and represented without having to weave a microagressive “So, how did you get here?” conversation into the action.

Freida Pinto stars as “Selina Dalton” and Sope Dirisu stars as “ Mr. Malcolm ” in director Emma Holly Jones’ “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Ross Ferguson / Bleecker Street

Because at the end of the day, the emotions conveyed in these British period dramas are universal in that you don’t need to be a white person to experience love, rejection, and heartbreak. As we know, Austen’s legacy is due to the fact that the intellectual tussle between lovers resonates with readers across the world to this day. The continued popularity of romances set in this era of British history is attributed to the fact that many of us want to imagine what it is like to debut and be finally allowed to choose love over responsibility — a marker of the Regency era’s shifting social morals being marriage out of love.

“[These stories were never] just meant for one group of people. Just because we’re now seeing Black and Brown stories of love doesn’t mean that is the only ‘right’ way to do it,” Pinto explains. “All people of all backgrounds, and all races and all colors are all allowed to fall in love with each other, and write our own love stories.”

What is truly refreshing about the film is seeing two people of color cast opposite each other, rather than paired off with a white person. The full feature film is witty, the costuming is on point, and although predictable overall, the plot is still a gentle battle of the sexes that can only be found in period romantic comedies. 

At the end of the day, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” brings polite laughs — the kind you can hide behind a gloved hand — and a more traditional love story forged between like-minded intellectuals who challenge one another. Austen’s fans are sure to delight in the latter, rather than what’s now expected of period drama, such as the hot and heavy sex appeal of “Bridgerton.” That’s all to say that although it’s a fun two-hour watch of will-they-or-won’t-they, it might just not be everyone’s cup of tea!

When she fails to meet an item on his list of requirements for a bride, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) is jilted by London’s most eligible bachelor, Mr.Malcolm (Sope Dirisu). Feeling humiliated and determined to exact revenge, she convinces her friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) to play the role of his ideal match. Soon, Mr. Malcolm wonders whether he’s found the perfect woman…or the perfect hoax. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” hits theaters on July 1, 2022.

Cover image: Ross Ferguson / Bleecker Street

Author

  • Giannina Ong is the Editor in Chief and Activism Editor of Mochi Magazine. During the day, she's a researcher, activist, and content creator. She holds a master's from University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute, and completed her bachelor's triple-majoring/triple-minoring at Santa Clara University. A spot-on Taurus (sun and rising), she is also a retired athlete, pasta-loving writer, and overeager editor.

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