Catherine Called Birdy Review – The Delightful Medieval Antics of Lena Dunham | Toronto Film Festival 2022
VSatherine Called Birdy, Lena Dunham’s highly enjoyable adaptation of Karen Cushman’s millennial classic, opens in the mud. Fourteen-year-old Catherine, brilliantly played by Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey, rolls around in the dirt with her village friends, relishing in the filth that coats her clothes, her cherubic face, her curtain of black hair. The year is 1290, in the English county of Lincoln, and Catherine is about to step into the muck that is adolescence – an indignity and frolic that Dunham, who captured both in the HBO series unjustly rejected Girls, turns into a delicious treat.
It’s a welcome return for Dunham, whose previous feature as writer-director this year, Sharp Stick, his first since 2011’s Tiny Furniture, was an odd disappointment. While Sharp Stick’s coming-of-age plot, a mid-20s sexual awakening, was hampered by a bizarrely infantilized protagonist, Dunham finds a sweet spot here through Cushman’s fearless medieval heroine. Feudal England isn’t a great place to be a young girl, even if you’re the village lord’s only daughter, but Catherine de Ramsey has a nose for fun – which, in those days, can also serve as survival. She stuffs rags stained with her menstrual blood under the floor of the outbuildings, lest her father, the indefatigable spendthrift Lord Rollo (a delicious Andrew Scott) learn that she is marriageable, and thus a solution for his debts. When the suitors arrive, she thinks up new ways to repel them: a wild costume, the release of her pet birds, a “balm” of foraged shit.
She records it all with smug glee and endearing naivete (knowing where children are from and what’s virgin is a bit common) in her diary, composed for her brother Edward (Archie Renaux), a monk at a local abbey. Said diary, the narration of Cushman’s 1994 novel, becomes one of the most successful voiceovers I’ve seen, a spirited year in what could be described, favorably, as an eighth year of the thirteenth century. Catherine endures the hardships of medieval childhood – namely the prospect of forced marriage as soon as she can have children – but also the drudgeries of adolescence since time immemorial: counting with her periods, hopeless crushes, psychotropic jealousy, breakups of friends and makeup, recorder lessons.
Catherine hates her father, her soft brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman, another Thrones veteran and regularly funny here), but she especially hates marriage, which she rightly considers a trap, especially after her engagement with a lustful and repulsive old man. lord she calls Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye). “Men are horribly deceitful creatures,” she tells her best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), while fainting in front of her handsome Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), a survivor of the crusade with, she notes. , remarkably good teeth.
Yet Dunham keeps what could be a depressing journey into the hardships imposed on women (see: Thrones, or the Historical Accuracy Excuse of the Horrific Childbirth Death Scene in The House of the Dragon) cheerful and light; the specter of what Catherine’s future would be with Shaggy Beard is enough to raise the stakes for her beating against her father’s machinations. It’s also a joke; several scenes of Catherine bristling at the intentions of grown men had me laughing out loud. The film strikes the right balance between an anachronistic story – pop music drops in emotional moments, cheeky mention of consent, lived-in dialogue with nods to the troubled past (“It’s just been a fortnight since I haven’t washed you for the last time”, Catherine’s beloved nanny Morwenna (Lesley Sharp, a light) laments as the girl returns from the mud; Catherine becomes poetic about being allowed to attend to a hanging.)
The actors, all lovely, are reminiscent of similar period or tone films whose comparisons cast Catherine Called Birdy in a warmer light. It’s refreshing to see Ramsey, who played Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones, portray another medieval heroine without as much gore and sadness; with black, dagger-like eyes and a fierce face, it’s impossible not to root. As he did in The Favourite, Alwyn plays a comely, if generally unhappy, supporting character in what borders on light historical farce. Scott imbues debaucherous Lord Rollo with some of the live-action unpredictability that endeared him as Fleabag’s Hot Priest, sans the series’ fourth wall-breaker that crushed the terrible Persuasion adaptation of Netflix, clearly inspired by Fleabag.
Although the mid-section drags a little – it’s not a movie that needs to be nearly two hours long, especially with a first half that skimmed through period rags and pranks on contenders for such a quick and enjoyable clip – Dunham sticks the landing in a smart departure from the book, one that involves more choice than circumstance, not just for Catherine but for those who love her. The world is not kind to women – a point put a little too much on the nose by a gratuitous “women are people too!” Catherine’s speech – but the film, thankfully, is kind to its audience and its protagonist. In Dunham’s hands, the guideline of enduring and discovering one’s worth, whatever one’s historical imagination, is both a comfort and a lark.