Year:  2022

Director:  Lena Dunham

Release:  October 7, 2022

Distributor: Prime Video

Running time: 108 minutes

Worth: $17.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Bella Ramsey, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn, Lesley Sharp, Sophie Okonedo

… an abundance of humour, pathos, and so much charm.

Charming is not an adjective that would be commonly used to describe Lena Dunham’s work, yet with her adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 award-winning YA novel Catherine Called Birdy, charming is more than apropos. Warm, witty, delightful, and wise are other descriptors that come to mind for Dunham’s medieval coming-of-age film. In Catherine Called Birdy it seems that Dunham has found a resonant cinematic voice that overshadows her other 2022 feature, the poorly received Sharp Stick.

The year is 1290 and Lady Catherine, known as Birdy (a remarkable Bella Ramsey), is in her fourteenth year. Her home is Stonebridge, Lincolnshire, England and she is the daughter of Lord Rollo (a fantastic Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). Catherine delights in vexing her nursemaid Morewenna (Lesley Sharp) and teasing her brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman). What Birdy likes most of all is rolling about in the mud with her villager friends Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), who is the local goat boy, and Meg (Rita Bernard-Shaw), a milkmaid. Birdy dreams of one day running away to join The Crusades or go on some epic quest, but as a girl such options are not available to her.

Her youthful hijinks are bound to come to an end once she is of marriageable age, a fact that becomes clear to her father once he realises his spendthrift ways have bankrupted the manor. Birdy does not like her father, who she sees as an incompetent drunk responsible for constantly impregnating her mother who has lost many children to stillbirth. Birdy’s acts of rebellion exasperate and delight her mother figures Morwenna and Aislinn, but are not taken well by her father. In an attempt to curb Birdy’s impetuous spirit and teach her more about herself, mother allows her to forgo spinning so long as she writes a diary for her eldest brother Edward (Archie Renaux), who is a monk.

The diary acts as a voiceover device and is very effective. In addition to Birdy’s voice being the main point of entry to her story, there are some droll onscreen character breakdowns (from Birdy’s diary) that give the audience an idea of who Birdy thinks the people surrounding her are. The technique is wonderful but reinforces that Birdy is, for all her cleverness, quite naïve.

One of the people that Birdy loves most in the world is her beautiful friend Lady Aelis Sidebottom (Isis Hainsworth). Aelis is the daughter of the odious 81-year-old Sir Gideon who waited only one day after the death of Aelis’ mother to import a young new bride, Berenice (Mimi Ndiweni) to act a Aelis’ stepmother. According to Birdy, Lady Berenice’s hobbies include hating her husband and writing poetry. Although the tone is genial, Dunham rarely lets the audience forget the innate patriarchal structure of the society that Birdy lives in, and its reliance on trading class and money for position.

The other person Birdy loves unconditionally is her handsome uncle George (Joe Alwyn), a returned soldier from The Crusades. Birdy bemoans to Aelis that she can’t marry him, “If only we were cousins!” The issue of marriage is becoming pressing as Lord Rollo has discovered that Birdy has her period, which officially makes her a woman, and that she is the only currency he has to secure financial stability for his manor and town. Marrying off Birdy for a decent dowry is not going to be easy, not only because Birdy herself has a myriad of plans to fend off potential suitors, but also because she’s far from the retiring “Lady” a man of the era would desire.

While most of the plot revolves around Birdy’s cunning tricks to repel potential suitors, there is more at stake in the coming-of-age tale. Birdy doesn’t fully understand her world and in some arenas, she is woefully ignorant. She had no idea what her period was, had no understanding of how pregnancy happens, and doesn’t know what a virgin is. For a young woman about to be shipped off into marriage, no one prepared her for what that would mean beyond having to be the property of some man.

Birdy is also so fixated on her own situation that she fails to see how other people around her suffer. Aelis and George fall in love (much to the anger and resentment of Birdy) but are not permitted to marry because George has no income. Birdy doesn’t see the pain George has endured in being a soldier. She is so angry with Aelis that it takes her a long time to even notice that Aelis is just as much a victim of enforced gender roles – she has to marry a nine-year-old. Birdy makes clueless statements to Perkin and fails to notice that he is just as stuck in the rigid system as she is.

One event that opens Birdy’s eyes is the wedding of George to a much older rich widow Ethelfritha (Sophie Okonedo). Ethelfritha explains that she’s aware that George does not love her, but she is rich and will provide George with a comfortable life, in return she inherits George’s title and is protected by being married. It’s the first time that Birdy encounters a woman who holds the power and is pragmatic about romance. It takes Birdy some time to realise that the constrictions that are imposed on women can also be imposed on men of a certain class with limited prospects.

Eventually Birdy scares off all her would-be suitors and is left with one last proposal. To say that Lord John Murgaw – AKA “Shaggy Beard” (Paul Kaye) is the worst of the bunch is an understatement. He’s foul, coarse, and uses his wealth to cover up the fact that he harbours no conceivable personal charms. Despite all her best work to get rid of Shaggy Beard (including making a poultice made for him out of shit), the man refuses to be deterred. Instead, he presents Birdy with a purse full of coin and declares that when she spends any of it, she is agreeing to be his.

Lena Dunham has done a brilliant job of adapting Cushman’s novel. Yes, she belabours certain points, but overall, her script is bouncy and full of heart. Dunham doesn’t shy away from some of the very real consequences of womanhood in the era. Birdy watching her mother give birth to stillborn children and risk her life with every pregnancy is a truly terrifying prospect for the young woman. When she comes to realise that it also frightens her father, she begins to appreciate that her parents’ marriage is more complex than she imagined.

Dunham has created a superb film that strikes the right balance between contemporising a period-set story to give it relevance to the YA audience it is aimed at. Catherine Called Birdy is replete with petty jealousies, fractured friendships, impossible crushes, misunderstandings – all the hallmarks of the teen experience. There are delicious scenes where Dunham chooses modern music to accompany the action (including Billie Piper’s own ‘Honey to the Bee’). Birdy is a heroine, but a flawed one and her flaws make her sympathetic as much as her cheekiness makes her engaging.

Bella Ramsey, best known for her work on Game of Thrones shines as Birdy. Her angelic face is the perfect foil for her mischievous nature. Ramsey’s voiceover brings the audience closer to the narrative but also conveys pathos when necessary. Ramsey’s performance is a joy and Dunham and cinematographer Laurie Rose (best known for his work with Ben Wheatley) capture her infectious appeal. Andrew Scott as Lord Rollo is wonderful, crafting a character that goes from wastrel to father in a manner that is unforced. Scott is a great comic actor and only one in a stacked cast that includes cameos from Russell Brand and Ralph Ineson. Lesley Sharp’s Morwenna is both comic and motherly and bounces off Ramsey with ease.

Catherine Called Birdy does have a few pacing issues, there is a dip in the middle, but that doesn’t ruin the energetic beginning or well realised ending. Lena Dunham is a director that seems to attract controversy but there is little outrage to be found in her latest work – just an abundance of humour, pathos, and so much charm. Catherine Called Birdy may be one of 2022’s best comic coming-of-age stories and hopefully provides Dunham with a fresh manner to use her creativity; it is a film that is hard to resist and it’s difficult to think of a reason why you’d want to.