Synopsis: A 14-year-old girl in medieval England navigates through life, avoiding potential suitors her father has in mind.
Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Russell Brand, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Kaye, Lesley Sharpe
Director: Lena Dunham
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: With the phenomenal success and healthy run of HBO’s Girls, writer/director/creator/star Lena Dunham burst onto a scene that was often ill-prepared for her painfully honest responses to what the world was throwing at her. Some saw that honesty as a detriment even as they found it wholly refreshing to hear a voice that cuts through a lot of same-speak. So, even if you didn’t relate to Dunham’s generation or outlook on relationships, work, and family, a (sometimes begrudging) respect developed throughout that show. While I was happy to see Dunham recognized for her directing and writing, it wasn’t very reassuring to see awards bodies claiming to be progressive never go that extra mile and hand her the award along with the nomination.
This isn’t a review to relitigate the rise of Lena Dunham and the fact that I think she never got her full due. No, this is to celebrate that Dunham has taken time after Girls to recalibrate, find love, and determine the next steps she wants to take in her career. To hear her tell it, the only thing she wanted to focus on after Girls was adapting ‘Catherine Called Birdy’, Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel Dunham sparked to as a kid. Never one to leave a goal behind, Dunham has gone ahead and done it. The result is this spirited period comedy arriving on Prime Video after being afforded a longer-than-usual theatrical window in key markets.
The time is 13th century England but to hear Catherine (Bella Ramsey, Judy) speak is to know that she is thoroughly modern. Catherine, called Birdy due to her collection of pet birds, is anything but prim and proper, the only daughter amongst a stable of boys. To the manor born, her father (Andrew Scott, Victor Frankenstein) is a proto-typical male who spends beyond his means and feels that women are to be married off. At the same time, her mother (Billie Piper) encourages her young daughter’s spunky nature but ultimately acquiesces to her husband. This pluck becomes an issue when she reaches womanhood (a harrowing passage that exposes a side of life in the Middle Ages we likely haven’t thought of in detail), and her father decides it’s time for her to marry.
Who would she marry, though? She can’t wed her best friend Perkin because he’s beneath her position and can’t offer the monetary advances her father requires of her suitor. While there are a few hints she harbors a crush on her hunky uncle (Joe Alwyn, Harriet) she can’t quite verbalize, even she knows that is off limits. Catherine then sets about sending each candidate off as quickly as possible in a montage of misbehavior until she meets her match in a greasy elder nicknamed Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye, Dracula Untold), who isn’t deterred so easily. As her time ticks away, can Birdy fly away from her imminent destiny into a future of her choosing?
Dunham has mentioned in interviews that she altered the book’s ending. While I haven’t read the source material, I did sneak a peek at the original conclusion, and what the writer/director has cooked up feels like a better finale for this character in this iteration. On paper, the ending Cushman wrote likely works, but the character Dunham has brought to life couldn’t have existed and satisfied an audience the same way. That’s because Ramsey is charmingly realistic in the role; you’re enamored within seconds of meeting her. You can almost see some of Dunham’s younger self in Birdy, and I’d imagine that’s what drew her to the book and, eventually, this movie. I haven’t even the space to discuss how much I enjoyed the supporting turns of Sophie Okonedo (Death on the Nile) as an eccentric woman that plays a part in Birdy’s understanding of female independence and Lesley Sharp as her nurse that doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
Announced before the pandemic and then delayed because of the lockdown, it’s taken a while for Catherine Called Birdy to take wing, but the results are lovely. It can be overly cutesy at times, and in all honesty, it’s not a film that’s made explicitly for me anyway, so I’m not going to be the best litmus test for it. The real goal will be to have children around the age of Birdy (boys and girls) watch the film and then talk with them about it after. Adults could have good conversations with youngsters about traditional roles and how they’ve changed since Birdy’s time. In that way, Dunham articulates how far we’ve traveled without learning vital lessons.