The late 13th century isn’t a time known for individualism and free-thinking personalities, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Whether or not they did live then, it’s a creative way to look back at a long-gone era with far too many aspects reminiscent in today’s patriarchal society. The 1994 novel Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman presents such a protagonist, and its film adaptation brings on an intriguing choice of writer-director, Lena Dunham, to transport this spirited story to the screen with a unique voice and upbeat energy.
Catherine (Bella Ramsey), nicknamed Birdy, is the daughter of Sir Rollo (Andrew Scott), the Lord of Stonebridge in 1290 England. To dig his way out of a financial hole, Rollo sets out to profit from his daughter by setting her up with a wealthy suitor. The strong-willed and perceptive fourteen-year-old has no desire to be married off, especially to the miserable choices that her father and mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), present. With her eyes on her attractive uncle George (Joe Alwyn) instead, Catherine ensures that she can be as unpalatable as possible to each match her parents offer and remain blissfully free from a forced union.
There is a playfulness to this film from its very first scene, with each character introduced by an on-screen description of who they are, how old they are, and a series of facts about them, one of which is usually less than serious. That’s the best way to define this film in general, existing in a time where women’s voices, and even more so those of young girls, were simply not heard or regarded. Yet the characters here have a more interesting dynamic, since Rollo tries to keep up appearances but also gives in to his own indulgences and is well aware of the fact that both his wife and his daughter are far cleverer than he is.
Dunham is best known for her work on the Emmy-winning HBO series Girls, which presented its own inventive and insightful look at being a young adult woman in today’s age. She recently made her first feature film since her early breakthrough Tiny Furniture, the controversially-received Sharp Stick. It’s surprising to see Dunham behind a work that has nothing to do with sexuality and adult romantic entanglements, and instead presents a more naïve and grounded perspective from a protagonist of a younger age. It turns out Dunham does find the right voice for this project, even if her selection as its storyteller may have raised a few eyebrows.
Even more fitting than Dunham for Catherine Called Birdy is her cast. Ramsey, who turns nineteen next week and will be recognizable to TV audiences from Game of Thrones and The Worst Witch, has a spectacular demeanor that enhances each of Birdy’s humorous interactions. Scott, whose turn as the Hot Priest on Fleabag has shown his mastery of a drama-comedy balance, is superbly indulgent and clearly having fun as Rollo, and he’s well-supported by dependable players like Piper and Alwyn. That this cast appears to be having a good time helps it to be particularly enjoyable.
There is plenty of commentary to be found about the way in which society perceives people and tries to put them on certain courses, aided by those who do nothing to change the way things are “supposed” to work. Birdy represents a free spirit, someone who at a young age is aware that she doesn’t want to follow her prescribed route and is determined to do whatever she can to avoid it. It’s unsurprisingly relevant today yet still feels grounded in its setting hundreds of years ago, effective both as fodder for conversation and a delightful viewing experience all on its own.
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Following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Catherine Called Birdy arrives in theaters on Friday, September 23rd and on Prime Video on Friday, October 7th.