Long gloves. Weekly balls. Social luncheons. The grandeur of the Regency era has had a grip on Hollywood for years. It was a time in history when social standing and decadent fashion were the greatest tools for a woman to move up in society. This reason alone is why “Mr. Malcolm’s List” has been the long-awaited Regency fantasy that serves more than just macaroons and decorative summer homes; it also features multiracial representation.
Set in the early 1800s, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a light-hearted romantic comedy akin to “Emma” and “Bridgerton.” The film has recognizable talents like Sope Dirisu, Freida Pinto, Zawe Ashton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Theo James. The cast graces the big screen as a crew of 20-somethings finding their place in society while entangled in love.
The story begins with childhood friends Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) and Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) saying their final goodbyes as Selina sets off for a childhood in the humble countryside of Sussex. Years later, Julia finds herself being escorted to an opera by London’s most sought-after bachelor: Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu). According to jealous onlookers at the opera, Julia is a desperate contender because she’s still unwed four seasons after she was introduced into society. In between stiff conversation and excessive eye fluttering, Julia, unfortunately, does not meet the requirements of Mr. Malcolm’s expectations.
In fact, his distaste for her is solidified by a caricature cartoon on the front page of the London newspaper. This isn’t the worst part for the pompous Julia, though. Her cousin, Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) begrudgingly admits that Mr. Malcolm additionally has a list of all the requirements of his future bride. Much to Julia’s horror, she barely passed any of the requirements.
In a state of panic, Julia sends Selina to visit in London, where she reveals her plan to get revenge on Mr. Malcolm. The plan is devious yet thoroughly sketched out: Selina will present herself as an amalgamation of every single requirement on Mr. Malcolm’s list, then right as he falls for her, Selina will reveal her own list that he does not fit.
As expected, the moment Selina and Mr. Malcolm meet, there’s an instantaneous chemistry that makes Julia’s game that much more difficult for Selina. As Mr. Malcolm slowly lowers his own inhibitions and falls deeply in love with Selina, Julia is shocked at the gentle nature exhibited by Mr. Malcolm. At the climax of the film, Julia hands Mr. Malcolm the fabricated list of requirements from Selina, ending the love affair between Mr. Malcolm and Selina.
However, after coaxing from Cassidy and Mr. Malcolm’s mother (Doña Croll), Mr. Malcolm races on horseback to stop Selina from returning to Sussex. He finally proposes to her and the credits roll as they remain in an embrace with the greenery of London engulfing them.
Multiracial casting in Regency-era films has a shaky history. There’s no overlooking the complicated history of racial violence Black and other people of color faced at the height of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Popular films like “Belle” took place during the late 1700s and were based on the true story of the biracial daughter of a white captain. Although Belle had the fortune and social status, her race pushed her into the shadows.
Although a few years after the Regency era, films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Underground” are equally popular and tell the grim realities that enslaved Black people faced. As these films depict the painful past in both London and the US, it’s understandable that the Regency era wouldn’t be the top choice for a multiracial love story. It can be incredibly difficult for viewers to separate fact from fantasy upon a backdrop of such oppression.
While it’s true that history can’t be erased with colorblind casting and romantic storylines, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” succeeds because it’s both expertly written and directed. The writing allows each character to have dimension and agency without erasing their racial identities. For instance, Mr. Malcolm tells Selina a saying in the language of his home country, and Selina’s character is both passionate and educated. She doesn’t hold back from critiquing class structure or attempt to alter her behavior to conform to respectability standards.
Although small moments compared to their romance, these quirks add to Selina and Mr. Malcolm’s narratives, making them feel authentic to their time period. Director Emma Holly Jones also paid attention to accentuating the female gaze in Selina and Mr. Malcolm’s love affair. Since Regency society required men to court unwed women, Selina was wooed innocently by Mr. Malcolm and eventually his friend, Captain Henry (Theo James). Their attempts focused on paying close attention to Selina’s conversation and ensuring she was comfortable at all times.
There were no unnecessary camera pans of Selina’s body or sexual advances. The courting was playful and innocent, centering on Selina’s journey of falling in love. This ensured that both her agency and character development were kept intact.
Another example was Mr. Malcolm assisting Selina in playing cricket. The camera panned in closely to their gloved hands brushing gently over one another, with Mr. Malcolm standing protectively yet with a respectful enough distance from Selina. Finally, the masquerade ball intently focused on Selina and Mr. Malcolm’s hands again, but this time the music faded as they gazed deeply into one another’s eyes.
The power of Emma Holly Jones’ use of a multiracial cast with an emphasis on the female gaze is that it distances POC characters from demoralizing roles. Additionally, diverse casting uplifts POC in supporting roles, allowing for the Regency era to appeal to a larger audience. People who come from disparate backgrounds are provided the opportunity to love in this setting, resulting in a film that brilliantly explores a historical romance through a modern lens.
In the era of technologically advanced animation, effects and otherworldly fantasy characters like “The Hobbit” and “Fantastic Beasts,” Hollywood certainly has room for interracial love stories set in the past. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a beautiful blend of Regency love and comedy that is a step in the right direction for better representation.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is now showing in theaters.
By Adia Carter