‘My Elizabeth Barrett Browning film needs a woman’s touch – but where are all the female directors?’

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.

Screenwriter Paula Milne.

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”.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media estimates that only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female, resulting in “a struggle to champion female stories and voices”. Research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, based at San Diego State University, found that women accounted for just 16% of directors working on the top 100 grossing films in 2020, up from 4% in 2018.

Browning, who died in 1861, aged just 55,is best remembered for her love poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese – which bears the famous line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” – and Aurora Leigh, now regarded as an early feminist text. Many of Browning’s later works were inspired by politics, a subject that Victorian readers viewed as unsuitable for women. The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, published in London in 1849, was a protest against slavery in the US.

She began a courtship with her future husband, Robert Browning, after her writings inspired him to declare: “I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too.”

She had to keep their relationship secret from her father, who never forgave her, and Milne portrays him as a man obsessed with her. Using artistic licence – “remembering some allusion that Virginia Woolf made about the coercive and possibly incestuous control of her father” – Milne writes of “the predatory glisten” of his eye in the spy hole that he drilled between their adjoining bedrooms: “At night… he would watch her… He was gaslighting her, telling her… things which were partially true about Browning. It became a kind of battle for her soul between these two men.”

When Browning asks him: “Why is there a spy hole looking into my bed chamber, Father?” he replies: “To keep an eye on you at night without disturbing you when you are plagued by your wretched dream.”

Milne said: “Set not long after the abolition of slavery, [the film] also depicts the moral hypocrisy of a family whose wealth is part of a culture built on racial exploitation – another theme all too relevant today.”

Browning’s father owned plantations in Jamaica, she added: “He made his money out of the slave trade. So it’s a house built on dirty money. Yet she was an abolitionist.”

In the screenplay, the father argues: “We gave our slaves their freedom 10 years since. It is entirely their choice to continue working for me.” His daughter replies:“What kind of choice if starvation is the alternative?”

Browning suffered a lifetime of ill-health. In the screenplay, her character says: “If you did not believe in curses before, believe it now… I come from a family of slave owners. We have blood on our hands. My poor health is my atonement for it.”

The screenplay is called My Father’s House, “to put the focus on her father, a kind of nemesis,” Milne said.

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