In her second directorial effort this year, Lena Dunham forgoes the adult themes of Sharp Stick to tell a more traditional coming-of-age story about a headstrong teenage girl living in medieval times. A significant departure from most of her previous work, the playfully broad Catherine Called Birdy, premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, is a sincere effort at the sort of classic young adult films that populated the 90s and early 2000s. Young-adult storytelling has always been more than brooding love triangles and devastating wars, but in a post-Hunger Games world it’s easy to forget the smaller, more personal stories. Luckily, Dunham has no trouble remembering Karen Cushman’s 1994 novel on which this film is based, capturing the book’s humorous diary format with cheeky voiceover narration.
In the early 1200s, Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is a girl on the cusp of womanhood. This is great news for her father Lord Rollo (Fleabag‘s Andrew Scott), who is eager to marry his daughter off to secure the family’s finances. Though they are people of means, Rollo is deeply in debt, which he blames on his wife Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper) for her expensive tastes. But Catherine, nicknamed Birdy, has no interest in getting married, choosing instead to spend her days holding on to childhood with her peasant friend Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and servant girl Meg (Rita Bernard-Shaw).
Catherine Called Birdy
The Bottom Line
Cheeky and charming.
She keeps a diary, writing to her brother Edward, who lives away from the family as a monk. There’s also her uncle George (Joe Alwyn), on whom she harbors a childhood crush. It’s a lively cast, all embodying their roles with lightness and humor. The film almost feels like the pilot of a series, with Dunham depicting Medieval Times like a high-concept playground.
Each character is introduced with onscreen text, sharing their history and personal qualities. This enhances the film’s comedic tone, encouraging viewers to see the world through Birdy’s observant yet immature eyes. Similar in tone to the 2001 Heath Ledger vehicle A Knight’s Tale, Catherine Called Birdy balances anachronistic narrative tendencies with genuine observations about the social problems of the time.
Ramsey plays Birdy in the style of classic literary heroines like Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables, all heart and energy with the bravery to speak her own mind. And together with Perkin, the two make a pair reminiscent of the French orphan Madeline and her friend Pepito. The film opens with her playing in the mud with her friends, reveling in the unbridled mess that is childhood. Why would she want to leave that for arranged marriages, dowries and household responsibilities?
But when Birdy starts getting her period, she knows playtime is coming to an end. And when her father starts setting up meetings for her with potential husbands, Birdy does whatever she can to drive them away. In Princess Kaguya-like fashion, Birdy approaches the suitors with immediate dismissal. Every man is older than her, ranging from young to elderly. Each is welcomed by pranks, lies, and old-fashioned bad behavior, sending Birdy’s father into an angry rage when her efforts succeed.
Scott is the highlight of the film, playing a truly unlikable patriarch with the manic energy that made his Moriarity on Sherlock so compelling. He’s the perfect match for Ramsey, whose sincere face and voice mask a girl who is much smarter than she lets on. Alwyn is also in fine form, with his charming eyes and princely manner. But as with most of her work, the real star of the show is Dunham, whose sharp dialogue and direction equips every actor with an acidic tongue and knowing gaze.
Catherine Called Birdy is the kind of small, mid-budget adolescent film that rarely gets made anymore. Dunham’s direction is breezy and calm, divorced from the melancholic tone and devastating brutality we’ve come to associate with stories set in this time. Despite the inherent darkness of a girl being pushed to grow up faster than she would like, Dunham finds humor in the absurdity of gender roles. Though the realities of the era mean that Birdy will eventually have to become a young wife, for a moment, the film lets her be a child for a little bit longer.