In Mr. Malcolm’s List, the nature of love is as diverse as the groundbreaking period rom-com’s casting.
The Regency-era film, adapted from Suzanne Allain’s book of the same name and directed by Emma Holly Jones in her feature debut, follows the romantic rollercoasters of four distinctly different people navigating the courting season: the handsome but guarded Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), the humble and intelligent Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), the clever but insecure Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) and the confident and charming Henry Ossory (Theo James).
Mixed up in a plan to humiliate Jeremy, the season’s most eligible bachelor, after his rejection of Julia makes her a public joke, Selina finds herself torn between her friend and her heart, while army captain Henry discovers that he may be romantically pursuing the wrong woman.
There’s a love square for the ages — a series of entwining and unfolding journeys of self and romantic discovery. Out on digital in the U.S. and set to debut in U.K. theaters on Aug. 26, Mr. Malcolm’s List is one of the year’s most sweeping and critically acclaimed big screen romances; a cinematic accomplishment owed to Jones’ vision, but also the work of her creative and production team.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to three of those partners — costumer Pam Downe, editor Kate Hickey and composer Amelia Warner — about how they helped build the film’s web of romantic comedy.
Pam Downe, Costume Designer
One of director Emma Holly Jones’ favorite easter eggs is courtesy of costume designer Downe, who helped weave the culture of star Freida Pinto into the fabric — and love story — between Selina and Jeremy.
“Pam handmade the blue dress Selina wears by the lake, and wove Paisley print into it,” Jones told THR at the film’s U.S. premiere. “Then after that scene, they started weaving the Indian Paisley pattern into Ṣọpẹ́ costumes. It is something that is really subtle, but it’s really special and it was about connecting the two of them through their clothes as well as through the emotion.”
But the connection between the two doesn’t stop there, according to Downe, who said she kept their color palette close, putting Selina in lots of greens and rust, while Jeremy wore dark greens and sweet chocolate browns. “Apart from the wealth, they are both quite down to Earth at heart, even though he’s a bit sort of fastidious,” she says.
Where Downe found the most contrast — and the basis for much of her costume work on the film — is in the affable friendship of Julia and Selina. As two women from very different backgrounds — and of very different dispositions — they not only endear to one another but share in their attractions, desire for independence and, at various points, clothing.
As the daughter of a clergyman, Selina wasn’t put into anything too embroidered or too overly fancy. “She’s not fashionable, but she wears her clothes well, so I ended up using quite a lot of linens and cottons,” Downe says. “She ends up in a couple of evening dresses, and that’s obviously all come from Julia, but she’s never really happy in that world. She’s only really happy when she’s out in the country, which is also why I liked those earthy colors.”
Julia is far more fashionable — a sign of her wealth, high profile position and vanity — with her fabrics being much richer silks, along with lace and feathers. “Zoe is statuesque — she’s not like you’re wilting Regency heroine,” Downe explains of her use of jew. “So I use quite bold colors — a lot of jewel colors on her — in a way that you often don’t for that period. Normal Regency colors are very pale muslins and pastels.”
Downe also played up the class contrast between Malcolm and his romantic-competitor-turned-friend Henry. Downe notes that while the men’s pieces were largely the same, she leaned more heavily on finer materials for the film’s leading bachelor. “He’s got the best fabrics, the best wools, the best cuts — all beautifully bespoke and beautifully made because he’s got lots of money,” she says.
Meanwhile, the “quite masculine” army captain, was “not dressing in any flashy or fashionable way” and dons a lot of navies and browns — “more traditional colors of that sort of era for men,” Downe explains.
“I used on Ṣọpẹ́ this wool that almost molds to the skin. It’s incredibly fine — not fine thinness, but just a beautiful wool mold. Whereas Henry’s was just slightly rougher — there was a small difference in the expense of the wool,” she adds.
Henry can still, however, be seen in silks, linens and cottons — a vision of a “working man whose smart” and the “the polar opposite” in many ways of the woman he ultimately falls for. “Henry and Julia come together despite their backgrounds, so I didn’t want them to have a similar feel,” she says.
Kate Hickey, Editor
For editor Kate Hickey, telling Mr. Malcolm List’s various love stories — platonic and romantic — was made more challenging by the fact that she and Jones were forced to work thousands of miles apart due to the pandemic. “There’s this tyranny of distance and we had to really trust that I was the right choice for the film and that we had a shorthand and that this could still happen despite that distance,” she tells THR.
That attempt to connect across that space or distance was mirrored in the film, most notably within the physical and emotional arc of Jeremy and Selina’s love story. Hickey describes the duo’s relationship as “smoldering” and like a dance, with the editor telling THR that she really leaned into “the magnetism” between the two — and the fact that while Selina is “humble” and “not upfront,” Jeremy is also guarded and lonely because of his financial and societal standing.
“It’s really trying to find those moments of one going and then the other one staying, really playing off that friction to arrive at that ending,” she adds, pointing to their first meeting, their “gorgeous” waltz moment and their sun-kissed embrace at film’s end as moments that capture and define her editing choices for their duo’s arc. “Jeremy kind of sneaks up on Selina and she him. It’s a bit more tender and treated more with longer cuts.”
While Selina and Jeremy slow edge towards one another on screen, for Julia and Henry, the editing is “kept a lot more sharp” because the couple is more playful and flirtatious. Hickey notes that Henry’s disappointment with Julia’s revealed revenge at the mascarade and the army captain’s ending admittance that he no longer wants to play silly games with her are key points in framing the growth of their relationship.
“I love those moments in the drawing room when he first comes in and then he pops a grape in his mouth,” Hickey says. “She is always trying to look busy, but then looking up at him can’t help noticing his handsomeness. It’s an instant attraction but she’s trying to push it down — and he’s intrigued by her spirit because he hasn’t met someone like that before.”
Hickey adds that she allowed the characters’ personalities and emotional reactions in scenes like these to guide her editing, a choice made easier by the work of Tony Miller, Mr. Malcolm’s List’s director of photography.
“It just was shot beautifully, for starters,” Hickey says, crediting the cinematographer with giving her so many “different shot sizes.” That helped decide how to tell the story of not just Jeremy and Selina, but all the film’s love triangles (think: Julia, Jeremy and Selina; Jeremy, Henry and Julia; and Jeremy, Selina and Henry).
“There’s all the eye-lines and the physical dynamics,” Hickey notes of those group scenes like Henry and Selina’s pond stroll that ends up with the captain shoulder-checking Jeremy as well as the staircase revelation among those three and Julia at the mascarade. “It’s showing the physicality of the moment between characters in the wide shots and then being in the close-ups for the looks and dialogue, to track those punctuating moments.”
How long to stay in those close-up moments for Hickey was up to the characters themselves. “They really inform everything,” she says. “There’s the architecture and the geography of the scene, and then most importantly, the rhythm of the performance.”
Amelia Warner, Composer
Amelia Warner composed Mr. Malcolm’s List’s main theme “Proposal” before the movie began filming, giving the cast music to use while on set and setting the tone for other departments. But the composer says she had trepidations while writing the piece, which leans away from a Regency period sound into something more “pared back, delicate and quite modern” that captures the slow-building nature of the movie’s leading couple. Luckily, Jones loved it “instantly.”
“I wanted something that could start as a seed — a really small moment, which is when they meet each other in the orangery and it’s just on the piano,” she tells THR. “The core really was creating a theme that made [Jeremy and Selina] real people because they’re being used as kind of chess pieces by Julia.”
Unlike a chess game, the earliest incarnation of that theme within the film doesn’t hide “behind lots of notes” and isn’t “moving around everywhere.” Rather, it stays “in such a small space on the piano,” working within about five or so notes.
“That felt really exposed and honest and not clever nor particularly ostentatious,” she tells THR, noting that it captured the “decency” and “honesty” of the couple while keeping the theme from growing into something too sweeping before the film’s conclusion.
That’s when Jeremy finally opens his heart and makes an actual grand gesture by chasing after Selina on horseback. “I remember putting an extra drum in and adding another trumpet, just trying to make the horse go faster — trying to make that more exciting and more thrilling,” Warner recalls,adding that director Jones discussed how the music in the film’s final sequence could illustrate her male lead’s sense of urgency.
Like the film, the score isn’t all grand overture romance. Warner notes that she thought “the script was very funny” with even funnier performances — a humor, “buoyancy” and lightness she tried to reflect through Julia and Henry’s developing relationship.
The “Oh, Henry” cue — used in the scene where Julia and Henry confess their love — is one of the composer’s favorites despite its brevity. It’s a moment, like the croquet sequence, that’s a coming together of Mr. Malcolm’s List‘s comedy and romance. To capture that tonally and emotionally, Warner says she used “quite a bit of bassoon and oboe” to help, rhythmically, turn Henry and Julia’s romantic interest into a comedic “waltz” and highlight the “fun and humor of their relationship banter.”
“It was trying to see Julia through his eyes and her through his,” Warner says. “In that croquet scene, even though it’s about Jeremy and Selena, it seems way more about Julia and the captain. You see there’s something going on there — mutual admiration and mutual frustration, or banter — that push and pull and irritation.”
Julia is a particularly dynamic presence within Warner’s score, with the composer noting she turned to the flute to help emphasize how she’s funny, smart and unexpected. “There are all these flute trills that could poke in and out,” Warner explains, nothing they drop in “scattered like confetti.”
But Warner never forgot the other side of Julia, a woman who has “her obsession with being ladylike and being seen” but is also “really liberated and really refreshing.” That’s at the heart of the film for both its leading women — a relationship Warner gave its own theme, full of deep woodwind, more muted piano trills and harmonics to create a “shimmering, warm, blurry feeling to their friendship cue.”
“I remember Emma talked about loving If Beale Street Could Talk‘s beautiful score. So I wanted to try and create something that felt similarly really gorgeously warm,” Warner says. “Even though they’re up to mischief, deep down, there’s real goodness there and they really care about each other.”