Screenwriter of biopic about the radical poet says the industry must do more to get women behind the camera lens
A new film about a 19th-century poet and early feminist is crying out to be filmed through a woman’s lens, but it is likely to be directed by a man because there is such a shortage of female directors, according to one of Britain’s leading screenwriters. Paula Milne has written a feature film inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who campaigned against social injustice, including slavery and child labour, while living in fear of her own father. Milne believes that such a story, with its many contemporary parallels, should be filmed by a woman, because of the natural empathy that women have for one another, but that is unlikely to happen.
“The problem is that everyone wants a female director and you’re in for a long, long wait,” Milne told the Observer. The industry has finally woken up to long-standing criticism of its failure to promote women to the top jobs, but there is a finite pool, with investors – particularly for feature films – unlikely to try “someone unproven”, she said. Milne believes that telling Browning’s story requires a woman’s sensitivity, to portray “a semi-incestuous thing going on with the father” and an addiction to opium that left her all the more dependent upon him.
In writing the script she wanted to show how “even a talented, fiercely intelligent woman can find herself trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. Her iconic story reflects the reality of many women today as they fall victim to gaslighting and the insidious power of obsessive love.” Milne’s acclaimed dramas, which have been showered with international awards, include The Politician’s Wife, starring Juliet Stevenson as the wronged spouse of a cheating MP, and The Virgin Queen, with Anne-Marie Duff as Elizabeth I.
“I’ve been writing since the late 1970s, and in all that time I’ve worked with just three women directors,” Milne said. Yet she argues that “women automatically understand other women, whereas it can be a leap for men”, in whose films “the perspective of the woman character” can sometimes be “neglected”.