Lena Dunham’s Medieval Coming-of-Ager – The Hollywood Reporter
In her second directorial effort this year, Lena Dunham forgoes the adult themes of pointed stick to tell a more traditional coming-of-age story about a headstrong teenager living in medieval times. A significant departure from most of his previous work, the broad and playful Catherine called Birdypremiering at the Toronto Film Festival, is a heartfelt effort at the genre of classic young adult films that populated the ’90s and early 2000s. Young adult storytelling has always been about more than love triangles. and devastating wars, but in a post-hunger games world, it is easy to forget the small, more personal stories. Fortunately, Dunham has no trouble remembering the 1994 novel by Karen Cushman that this film is based on, capturing the book’s humorous diary format with cheeky voice-over narration.
In the early 1200s, Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is a girl on the cusp of womanhood. This is great news for his father Lord Rollo (Flea bag‘s Andrew Scott), who is eager to marry off his daughter to secure the family finances. Although they are well-off people, Rollo is deeply in debt, which he blames on his wife Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper) for her expensive tastes. But Catherine, nicknamed Birdy, has no interest in getting married, choosing instead to spend her days clinging to childhood with her peasant friend Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and servant Meg (Rita Bernard-Shaw).
Catherine called Birdy
Naughty and charming.
She keeps a diary, writing to her brother Edward, who lives away from the family as a monk. There’s also her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who she has a childhood crush on. It’s a lively cast, each playing their role with lightness and humor. The film almost feels like the pilot of a series, with Dunham portraying Medieval Times as a high-level playground.
Each character is introduced with on-screen text, sharing their story and personal qualities. This reinforces the comedic tone of the film, encouraging viewers to see the world through Birdy’s observant but immature eyes. Similar to Heath Ledger 2001 vehicle tone The story of a knight, Catherine called Birdy balances anachronistic narrative tendencies with authentic observations on the social issues of the time.
Ramsey plays Birdy in the style of classic literary heroines like Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables, all heart and energy with the courage to speak her mind. And with Perkin, the two form a pair reminiscent of French orphan Madeline and her friend Pepito. The film opens with her playing in the mud with her friends, reveling in the unbridled mess that is childhood. Why would she want to leave that for arranged marriages, dowries and household responsibilities?
But when Birdy starts getting her period, she knows playtime is coming to an end. And when her dad starts setting her up dates with potential husbands, Birdy does everything she can to chase them away. In true Princess Kaguya fashion, Birdy approaches suitors with an immediate dismissal. Each man is older than her, ranging from youngest to oldest. Each is met with old-fashioned pranks, lies, and bad behavior, sending Birdy’s father into a mad rage when his efforts succeed.
Scott is the highlight of the movie, playing a truly unlikable patriarch with the manic energy that made his Moriah on sherlock so convincing. He’s the perfect match for Ramsey, whose sincere face and voice mask a much smarter girl than she lets on. Alwyn is also in great shape, with her charming eyes and princely manner. But as with most of his work, the real star of the show is Dunham, whose sharp dialogue and direction endows each actor with an acid tongue and a knowing gaze.
Catherine called Birdy is the kind of small, mid-budget teen movie that rarely gets made. Dunham’s direction is airy and calm, divorced from the wistful tone and devastating brutality we’ve come to associate with stories set in this era. Despite the inherent darkness of a girl being pushed to grow up faster than she would like, Dunham finds humor in the absurdity of gender roles. Although the realities of the time mean that Birdy will eventually have to become a young bride, for a while the film allows her to be a child for a bit longer.