One of my favourite films of the year has crept up via Amazon Prime, defied my expectations, and thoroughly charmed me to bits. Based on a Karen Cushman novel, Catherine Called Birdy is a light, knowing comedy about a teenage girl resisting adulthood in medieval England. There have been more dramatic and thrilling films released during 2022, and certainly films considered more “worthy” than this small-scale amusement, but when assessing a new feature I always like to keep two questions at top of mind: what is the filmmaker attempting to do, and do they succeed in that goal? Whether or not you enjoy Catherine Called Birdy will, as always, come down to personal taste, but it is difficult to imagine a film with this subject matter and this style being made better than writer/director Lena Dunham has already done.
Catherine, nicknamed “Birdy” (Bella Ramsey), is the 14 year-old daughter of a cash-strapped local aristocrat (Andrew Scott), and struggles with the expectations that come with stepping towards adulthood. She is desperately romantic, but her father is more interested in marrying her off to secure the family finances. Thus Birdy takes it upon herself to scare off any wealthy suitors by any means necessary.
This is a story of a 21st century girl in a 14th century world, and Dunham’s screenplay delights in anachronism and freewheeling juxtapositions between historical situations and self-aware commentary. Birdy behaves in a manner of a modern-day teenager, despite all context and appearances, and narrates her own story via a series of diary entries. From her perspective, daily life in the Middle Ages presents much absurdity. Watching her navigate a patriarchal, religious, and tradition-bound environment when all she wants to do is rebel is a comedic delight. Bella Ramsey, who gained much acclaim in Game of Thrones, does a beautiful job with the role. Her comic skills are exemplary.
The rest of the cast offer numerous delights for fans of British film and television, including not just Andrew Scott (Fleabag), but Billie Piper, David Bradley, Sophie Okenodo, Joe Alwyn, and Paul Kaye. Each character is infused with warmth, and Dunham maintains a strong and supportive female presence throughout the film. It is quite the achievement to do that, given Birdy’s story is framed by male control of her destiny, but it is not hard to see the film’s best characters tend to be the women.
In many respects this all simply forms a typical teenage ‘coming of age’ story, but its setting is novel, its insights well-observed and funny, and a smart, observant feminist sensibility underlies everything. Everything works as it should. Given Lena Dunham’s previous works in film and television, this could have all been so terribly cynical. Instead its uncomplicated and direct expression of joyfulness is its greatest strength.