Director: Lena Dunham. Cast: 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 1990s children’s novel, we meet a young girl in the 1290s, Lady Catherine aka Birdy (Bella Ramsey). She’s sweet, boisterous, and utterly joyful when it comes to her privilege. Nestled in a worker’s cart on her way to her friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), she wonders what life must be like for the peasant class. She finds them extraordinarily fascinating, “so simple…so passionate…so toothless.”
Catherine named Birdypaired with sharp stickas yet unreleased in the UK, make up Dunham’s first feature films since 2010 tiny furniture. She’s back and armed to the teeth with a millennial ennui, her usual trademarks retooled just to suit her tween audience. The honesty is there. The bitter joke. The semi-deliberate oblivion that has made her such a polarizing figure.
In many ways, Birdy is essentially a diminutive Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s on-screen alter ego and the de facto lead of girl. Both wrestle with the insecurities that result from never fully conforming to traditional expectations of womanhood. Both refuse to ever consider that the blessings and burdens they carry might not be widely shared among their acquaintances.
However, think of Birdy as Horvath via Brave‘s Princess Merida. Thanks to the many indulgences her father Lord Rollo (a wonderfully foolhardy Andrew Scott) coveted – he bought a tiger; it turned out dead – Birdy must be married off to save the family fortune. She is repelled by the idea, and when the arrival of her period hastens that dreaded fate, she hastily stuffs her bloodied rags between the floorboards of the castle’s outhouse. She’s soon caught. Next comes the skillful work of appearing gremlin-like enough to scare off any potential suitors.
“We are humans. And we can think and we can hear and we can feel!” our heroine roars against misogyny in her inevitable final act. Ramsey carries that defiance beautifully, coloring her Birdy with just enough naivety to debunk her character’s most outspoken insults (at one point she calls her brother “a death-monger”).
But even when you consider the film’s open-ended approach to menstruation and childbirth, it’s hard to imagine those same tweens who grew up on a steady diet of empowered princesses will find their way Catherine named Birdy so much of a feminist revelation. Dunham’s made some important changes to the original story. The only achievement is removing Cushman’s original intent to examine the sacrifices and compromises women have been forced to make throughout history. Here we get the more digestible iteration of girl power – accompanied by Misty Miller’s dreamy covers of “Girl on Fire” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”.
As with Dunham’s HBO series, many of Catherine named Birdy‘s biggest observations are actually about her male characters (girleventually Adam introduced Driver to the world). Rollo, though he may berate his daughter as “one step away from a leper,” genuinely adores her, but sees no way out of his misery other than to sell her like a head of cattle. Her handsome uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who fought in the Crusades and has all the teeth, arrives with the weary determination of the hometown hero, who is destined to disappoint. There is a compelling contradiction here: these men are simultaneously being crushed by patriarchal expectations while at the same time serving as their enforcers, however reluctant they may be. In other words? Different century, same Lena Dunham.
Catherine Called Birdy hits theaters September 23rd and hits Prime Video October 7th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/catherine-called-birdy-review-lena-dunham-b2172806.html Catherine Called Birdy Review: Different Century, Same Lena Dunham in Medieval Feminist Rampage