Around the midway point of Catherine Called Birdy, Lena Dunham’s deliriously fun yet pointed adaptation of Karen Cushman’s YA book, our hero — a 14 year-old named Catherine, nicknamed (surprise!) “Birdy,” played remarkably and brilliantly by Bella Ramsey — begins to list off what girls are not allowed to do. They can’t go on crusades, cut their hair or be horse trainers. They aren’t permitted to be monks or go to hangings; forget about drinking in public houses or, God forbid, they laugh very loud. All strictly verboten.
Nestled right in the middle of this list, however, is Birdy’s buried lede: Girls can’t choose the time, place or mate who they must marry. She’s reciting all of these facts via voiceover, while her father (Andrew Scott), i.e. the person who can dictate her marital status, is thwacking her hand with a reed. The family is in need of money due to his chronic financial irresponsibility (pity about his expensive pet tiger dying en route from Siberia). So he’s attempting to sell her off to the richest men in need of a goodly wife. She’s successfully convinced one prospective suitor to skeedaddle, hence the corporeal punishment. It’s the 13th century. Women do not have a say over their own bodies. The more things change….
It doesn’t take a genius-level IQ to connect any number of dots here. Cushman’s Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1994, the same year Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act into law. (Yes, it took that long to get a bill supporting the protection and support of women who’d been raped or suffered domestic abuse on an infrastructural level.) Dunham is releasing her film version into an atmosphere that suggests we’ve taken a step several centuries backward in terms of female autonomy and procreation. Birdy has only just begun to experience a monthly phenomenon that her governess (Lesley Sharp) calls “the Lady in Red,” but she’s still very much a child, happy to indulge in a life of mud fights and endless frolicking. To the men in control of her destiny, however, she may as well be livestock, to be sold or bartered for cash and “the carnal.” Ditto her best friend, Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), who’s eventually married off to a nine-year-old heir to a fortune. And, should her eternally pregnant mother (Billie Piper) be an example of what awaits her, Birdy will soon be viewed as a walking womb, forced to produce babies even when doing so puts her life at risk.
Sorry, did we mention this is a comedy?
Both a raucous, madcap feminist romp through history and a surprising change of pace for the auteur responsible for it, Catherine Called Birdy might sound like nothing more than a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the bullet points go down if merely boiled down to its political messaging. That you feel every sharp jab about how the social repression of women was ever thus, however, doesn’t exclude the fact that it’s a tale of young adulthood told as breezy and buoyantly as possible. If anything, the melding of broad, bawdy humor and outrage, of gutbusting and throat-clearing, complements each other beautifully.
Having been the voice of her generation — or at least, a voice of a generation — and found it wanting, Dunham has moved on from cult-of-personality vehicles to telling stories that tap her skills while stretching past write-what-you-know ceilings. The anything-goes sex-positivity that informs her earlier 2022 movie, Sharp Stick, may share with Girls a willingness to shock and raw-dog the notion of a cringe-dramedy, but this feels like she’s challenging herself to channel the personal through interpretation over too-much-information. Don’t praise Birdy because it’s not didactic or a TED Talk. Love it because her reverence for the source material has enabled her to make a perfectly irreverent, chaotic, messy medieval farce that still feels like it’s hers. Call it Lena Dunham and the Holy Grail.
She’s also got a secret weapon — actually, the kid’s a genuine thermonuclear missile of an MVP — in the form of Ramsey, a young British actor who seems to be a gift from the casting gods. You’ll recognize her from her stint on Game of Thrones, where her noble warrior Lyanna Mormont earned her place in whatever passes for the show’s Valhalla and rarely cracked a smile. Her Catherine is the polar opposite of a GoT martyr: a goofy, giddy youngster that, compelled by her older brother Edward the Monk (“more fun than most monks”), relates her innermost thoughts in a diary. Those entries double as narration, introducing us to Birdy’s world of fart jokes and family members and daydreams of liberation from the era’s gender roles. Dunham’s script imbues the character with a mix of naivety, curiosity and a rebellious streak; Ramsey is the one who sells you on her feeling less like a fictional creation than a flesh-and-blood teen, dealing with the confusion of her age (and the Middle Ages) through snark and tears. “Breakthrough” doesn’t even do the performance justice.
Ramsey has good company onscreen, notably Andrew Scott — former “Hot Priest” turned Bumbling, Amiable-Nincompoop Dad, nailing what is a particularly tricky balance of paternal nurture and era-appropriate, patriarchal-bastard nature — and Sophie Okonedo, who gives you an entire character in two brief exchanges. (Her wealthy widow is married to Birdy’s beloved Uncle George, played by Joe Alwyn. In regards to his turn as the nicest of her relatives, we can say what we usually say about the bulk of the actor’s work: Joe Alwyn definitely appears in this movie.)
Yet so much of what makes Catherine Called Birdy sing comes down to Dunham and Ramsey working in conjunction to give you a portrait of a 13th-century teenager woman that feels thoroughly modern without being winky-nudgey, spiky and tender, oddly family-friendly while still being defiant. Not even the threat of a belligerent vulgarian named Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye) as a prospective husband can derail the cheekiness. Nor can a happily-ever-after conclusion that doesn’t so much erase the regressive sins of the past so much as gently correct them with one eye on the present. There are still so many things that a young woman can’t do, as Birdy’s climactic reprise of that earlier list proves. If anyone can prove to you that rules are meant not just to be broken but changed for the better, it’s this medieval adolescent mugging for the camera. We stan a feminist legend talking truth to power regardless of the century.