Catherine, Called Birdy (Review) – Lena Dunham Goes Medieval On The Patriarchy

DIRECTOR: Lena Dunham

CAST: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, Ralph Ineson, Isis Hainsworth, Sophie Okonedo, David Bradley, Mimi M. Khayisa, Jamie Demetriou, Archie Renaux, Michael Woolfitt, Russell Brand, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Jacob Avery, Angus Wright

RUNNING TIME: 108 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: In medieval England, a teenage girl (Ramsay) resists her potential suitors…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

How do you write a coming-of-age story set during a period where the life expectancy wasn’t much longer than twenty years? Karen Cushman managed it with her 1994 breakthrough novel Catherine, Called Birdy, wherein the author imagined a lively and spirituous Middle Ages tale that became a precious favourite to young readers at the time, and now writer-director Lena Dunham manages it with an adaptation of Cushman’s book that retains its liveliness, as well as its quirky sense of adolescent humour, for a pretty decent film version.

Set in the “shire of Lincoln” during the 13th century, our hero is Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsay), the 14-year-old daughter of local Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). Known to many as “Birdy” for her vast collection of birds, the young Lady naturally resists the conventional path to Ladyship, preferring to roll around in the mud with her peasant friend Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) than learn how to crochet or play soothing melodies. However, when Lord Rollo finds himself facing financial ruin, he looks to pair his only daughter with a wealthy suitor in order to relieve his debts – needless to say, Catherine doesn’t take too kindly to this, and sets out to make herself seem as unmarriable as possible, until she is forced into a potential match that becomes near impossible to escape from.

Dunham is a smart choice to have her voice added to this material, because the Girls star and creator has a rampant energy to her filmmaking that practically goes hand in hand with Cushman’s off-kilter storytelling, and stylistically she brings a type of vibrancy that makes it feel like a Medieval version of her hit HBO show. Postmodernity reigns supreme in Dunham’s millennial take on history, from breathy soundtrack covers of modern songs, to darkly funny monologues about all the things that women cannot do in this time period (all while our title character is literally given a few slaps on the wrist by her increasingly desperate father). Sometimes, though, the revisionism can feel a bit too much like they’re simply checking boxes, as in a few scenes where Birdy and other female characters actively challenge patriarchal authority, with speeches that would be best reserved for a rant on Twitter more than anything. However, Dunham has intentions that are as noble as Catherine’s heritage, and she makes up for some of its more forced moments of feeling too modern for its own good with a sense of fun and liveliness that makes it ideal viewing for young adults – in fact, it does all of that much more successfully than the recent millennial-baiting Austen adaptation Persuasion.

It is also a well-cast film, made up of actors who have it within them to add their own dimensions to characters who might not have appeared to be so in lesser hands. Bella Ramsay easily carries the movie with a spirited lead turn, but a supporting turn by Andrew Scott turns out to be the film’s secret weapon. At first, he is that kind of foppish, self-aggrandising father who you could easily see effectively pimping out his own daughter just to put money into his pocket, but as the film goes on you do get to see a lot more of him really trying to keep this household together, and by the end he is humanised and even sympathetic as you witness him just falling apart by the bone by his own mistakes, and Scott is so good at selling this flawed character’s journey that you are soon rooting for him as much as you are Ramsay’s Catherine. Smaller roles for actors like Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo, Ralph Ineson, and even Russell Brand don’t overstay their welcome, as do other Game of Thrones veterans like David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, and Paul Kaye who is saddled with a grotesque figure who isn’t too far removed from his own drunken character on that show.

The performances are on point, as is the majority of Dunham’s engaging style of direction and writing, but Catherine, Called Birdy is also the kind of film where, for most of it, you are sitting there thinking about a lot of other similar films that had a bit more to say other than the standard commentary on historical gender politics. That isn’t to say that this film does them poorly, or even lacks anything worthwhile to say, but it also doesn’t stretch beyond the typical feminist revisionism that other postmodern stabs at Medieval culture have extended themselves, so to some it may not be quite as fresh of a viewing experience as they would perhaps like with a film such as this.

However, it still manages to work as a lively coming-of-age comedy that benefits from a strong cast, as well as Dunham’s postmodern filmmaking which brings her trademark worldviews to a time in history where women were sadly not expected to have such radical thoughts.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Catherine, Called Birdy is a lively coming-of-age Medieval comedy that is boosted by writer-director Lena Dunham’s vibrant filmmaking and storytelling style, as well as a strong cast including Bella Ramsay and Andrew Scott, but it sometimes becomes a bit too forceful in its postmodern critiques of past cultures.

Catherine, Called Birdy is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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