Catherine Called Birdy, 2022.
Written and Directed by Lena Dunham
Starring Bella Ramsey, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Lesley Sharp, Paul Kaye, Ralph Ineson, Archie Renaux, Douggie McMeekin, Isis Hainsworth, Antony Bunsee, Saskia Chana, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Christophe Tek, Akemnji Ndifornyen, Jordan Adene, Moya Brady, David Bradley, Adam Aziz, Jake Middleton Cooke, Angus Wright, Douggie McMeekin, Tyler Howitt, Bola Latunji, and Russell Brand.
A 14-year-old girl in medieval England navigates through life and avoids potential suitors her father has in mind.
The release of Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy (based on the novel by Karen Cushman) is nothing if not timely. Not only did a controversial and violent medieval epic such as Game of Thrones dominate the pop culture zeitgeist for roughly a decade, but the fantasy world has returned with a prequel series entitled House of the Dragon to maintain its grip on the landscape.
It’s also fitting that Lena Dunham has selected Bella Ramsey for the leading role here, an actress who broke out on Game of Thrones. Most of all, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Lena Dunham simply got justifiably angry at the way women characters are treated on that show (and countless others across movies and television), like so many others have and currently are with good reason to feel that way, reached a breaking point and decided to adapt this novel to balance things out and spoof the often harrowing and ludicrous nature of such entertainment.
Already a teenage-friendly novel with a woman’s perspective on 13th-century England, Lena Dunham has lent the narrative a more age-appropriate touch of taboo humor while updating certain aspects (I’ve never read the book, but from what I can tell, there’s no question that the ending is far better here). The story centers on Catherine, nicknamed Birdy over her affection for such majestic creatures, a 14-year-old girl slowly wising up to the cruelty and objectification of women, including girls her age, mostly used as bartering chips by their vain and egotistical fathers for wealth and titles.
Birdy has a robust family, from her comically self-centered father Lord Rolio (an amusing Andrew Scott that strikes the right balance between farcical and meanness) to her proper and loving mother Lady Aislinn, and brothers Robert and Edward (Dean-Charles Chapman, who also had a role in Game of Thrones, and Archie Renaux, respectively). The shire has fallen on hard financial times (hilariously, it’s revealed that, in his hubris, Lord Rolio routinely ignored his financial advisor, one of the only Black people in the village, which, while it could just be coincidental casting, does somewhat work as a joke against white male privilege and their excess indulgences), meaning that Lord Rolio is anxiously awaiting the day Birdy has her first period and can begin to be shopped around as a potential suitor for wealthy persons of interest.
Having eavesdropped on this conversation, Birdy tries her hardest to hide that she has just started bleeding. Not only is she rightfully against such arranged marriages, but also a tomboy more interested in taking on the male activities/jobs or traveling the world; anything but resigning to the stay-at-home mom, housewife role. She seeks advice from her brothers, one of which happens to be crushing on her best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), whereas the other is a monk who encourages her to keep a diary (serving as the film’s whimsically peppy narration). Nursing maid Morwenna (Lesley Sharp) is also around to joke around with Birdy and keep her in line on chores.
Despite what sounds like heavy material, Catherine Called Birdy is primarily concerned with skewering these customs and traditions, gleefully pointing out everything from absurd age differences (there’s a gag seeing a nine-year-old boy betrothed to her teenage best friend), incestual swooning (she pines over her uncle George, a handsome, noble man played by Joe Alwyn) before accepting that he is in love with her friend (although they can’t marry because of their social statuses), forced pregnancies to keep the family building and thriving, to the grossness of the men lining up to purchase her (that she immediately repulses away every time, much to the chagrin of her father). There are also several brief segments humorously looking at what holidays might have been like around then, such as All Hallow’s Eve and Christ’s Day. Meanwhile, Lena Dunham smartly brings aboard genre veterans like Ralph Ineson for quick cameos to get a rise out of older viewers in a film that otherwise caters to a younger audience.
Through no fault of Bella Ramsey, who is charming and funny in her mission to not be reduced to a chess piece, simultaneously discovering what she wants from life, Catherine Called Birdy, unfortunately, becomes stale. The tone and jokes fire on all cylinders in the first 20 minutes, and it quickly begins to feel like the movie has shown everything it offers while somehow wasting most of its supporting cast. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a slog to sit through, but under no circumstances should this would be run near two hours.
However, Catherine Called Birdy‘s existence is worthwhile simply to give early teenagers a lighthearted parody look into the era, and its antiquated customs (the clashing tone works better in execution than it sounds), but even they might grow patient, craving an edgier treatment. It’s a decent movie with noticeable flaws that I’m glad exists for younger viewers who will get something meaningful out of the silly charade.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]