A far cry from writer/director Lena Dunham’s other 2022 offering, Sharp Stick, her latest is an adaptation of the wildly popular book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, a coming-of-age story set in 1290 in the English village of Stonebridge. Teenage Lady Catherine (nicknamed Birdy and played by standout “Game of Thrones” alum Bella Ramsey) is the youngest child of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). As much as the lord and lady love their strange daughter, Stonebridge Manor is close to financial ruin, and the only way to bring in a quick influx of cash is to marry off Birdy for a handsome some—not an easy task considering that she is something of a renowned rabble-rouser who has no interest in marrying any man she does not love.
The lengths to which Birdy goes to remain not just unmarried but unsuitable for marriage are legendary, and they provide Catherine Called Birdy with a great deal of laugh-out-loud humor. The fact that she is smart, fearless and creative, not to mention her own best advocate for independence, only adds to the trickery she will pull to remain uncoupled on her own terms. In the back of her head, she’s saving herself for her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), whom she sees as the ideal man (it is Medieval times, let’s remember). Thankfully, George has a stable head on his shoulders and ends up marrying Ethelfritha Rose Splinter of Devon (Sophie Okonedo), mostly for money, though they seem to get along well as a bonus.
Also in Birdy’s corner supporting her decisions are her best friend Perkins (Michael Woolfitt), with whom there is zero romantic interest in either direction. Even when Birdy suggests they get married just to take her off the market, Perkins refuses for some surprising and absolutely solid reasoning. And then there’s her best girlfriend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), who is Bridy’s rock but also in the midst of getting married off to a man of inappropriate age as well. Toss in Birdy’s older brothers, who are both intermittently useful and useless to her purposes, and a likely successful suitor in the grotesque Sir John Henry Murgaw (aka Shaggy Beard, played by Paul Kaye), who finds that Birdy’s crazed behavior only turns him on, and you have a spirited, chaotic, and surprisingly contemporary take on the period film, one that tests the believability of certain feminist values in the times but also gives us things to cheer for, such as the bond of Birdy’s family and the fortitude of the film’s teen heroine.
As her contemporary Greta Gerwig recently did with Little Women, Dunham is able to take her source material (albeit Catherine, Called Birdy was published in 1994) and flesh out the hints of modern messages that were already there. It helps that Ramsey gives an absolute powerhouse performance as Birdy that feels like someone trying to build a house during an earthquake. She rarely stops moving, and when she does, there are clearly thoughts and schemes dashing around behind her eyes. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that she is more suited for adventures than married life, and now the rest of the world around her has to figure that out as well. From what I understand, the book is considered more of a children’s story than anything, but Dunham’s movie definitely skews more adult, although not defiantly so. Although Birdy can be abrasive (and proudly so), her charm and spirit shine through in this film.
The film will be released in theaters on Friday, September 23 and on Prime Video October 7.
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