Catherine Called Birdy review: Different century, same Lena Dunham in medieval feminist romp

·3-min read
Catherine Called Birdy review: Different century, same Lena Dunham in medieval feminist romp

Dir: Lena Dunham. Starring: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Isis Hainsworth, Russell Brand. 12A, 108 minutes.

In Lena Dunham’s adaptation of Karen Cushman’s Nineties children’s novel, we meet a young maiden in the 1290s, Lady Catherine aka Birdy (Bella Ramsey). She’s sweet, rambunctious and utterly blithe when it comes to her privilege. Nestled inside a workman’s cart, on the way to see her friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), she wonders what life must be like for the peasant class. She finds them exquisitely fascinating, “so simple… so passionate… so toothless”.

Catherine Called Birdy, paired with Sharp Stick, still unreleased in the UK, form Dunham’s first features since 2010’s Tiny Furniture. She's back and armed to the teeth with millennial ennui, her usual trademarks retooled only to suit her tween audience. The honesty is there. The acerbic wit. The semi-intentional obliviousness that’s made her such a polarising figure.

Birdy, in many ways, is basically a pint-sized Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s onscreen alter-ego and the de facto lead of Girls. Both wrestle with the insecurities that stem from never quite aligning with traditional expectations of femininity. Both refuse to ever consider that the blessings and burdens they carry may not be universally shared among their acquaintances.

Think of Birdy, though, as Horvath via Brave’s Princess Merida. Thanks to the many indulgences lusted over by her father, Lord Rollo (a wonderfully foolhardy Andrew Scott) – he bought a tiger; it turned up dead – Birdy must be wedded off to save the family’s fortune. She’s repulsed by the idea and when the arrival of her period hastens that dreaded fate she quickly stuffs her bloodied rags in between the floorboards of the castle’s privy. She’s soon caught. Next comes the dexterous work of appearing so gremlin-like that she frightens off all potential suitors.

“We’re people. And we can think and we can hear and we can feel!” our heroine roars in her, inevitable, final-act stand against misogyny. Ramsey wears that defiance beautifully, colouring her Birdy with just enough naïveté that the harshest of her character’s insults are de-barbed (at one point, she calls her brother “a deathmonger”).

But, even when you consider the film’s frank approach to menstruation and childbirth, it’s hard to imagine that the same tweens raised on a steady diet of empowered princesses will find Catherine Called Birdy all that much of a feminist revelation. Dunham’s made several key changes to the original story. The only achievement is to strip away Cushman’s original intentions to explore the sacrifices and compromises that women across history have been forced to make. Here, we get the more easily digestible, fist-bump iteration of girl power – soundtracked by Misty Miller’s dreamy covers of “Girl on Fire” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”.

As with Dunham’s HBO series, many of Catherine Called Birdy’s greatest observations actually concern her male characters (Girls, after all, introduced the world to Adam Driver). Rollo, though he may decry his daughter as being “one step away from a leper”, truly does adore her, but sees no route out of his misery that doesn’t involve selling her off like a bit of livestock. Her handsome Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who fought in the Crusades and has all his teeth, arrives with the weary resolve of the hometown hero destined to disappoint. There’s a compelling contradiction here: these men are simultaneously beaten down by patriarchal expectations while serving as its enforcers, however reluctant. In other words? Different century, same Lena Dunham.

‘Catherine Called Birdy’ is in cinemas from 23 September and arrives on Prime Video on 7 October