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Catherine Called Birdy

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Catherine Called Birdy
Photograph: Amazon Studios

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Lena Dunham gets wittily medieval with this YA-inflected coming-of-age saga

Having made her reputation as a contentious chronicler of NYC twentysomethings in Girls, Lena Dunham would hardly be first on anyone’s list of likely candidates to go all Monty Python and the Holy Grail and deliver a knowing medieval frolic.

Turns out, she has, and it’s an adaptation of a favourite novel: Karen Cushman's similarly titled 1994 YA title, which approached the age-old problems of girlhood from the vantage point of a thirteenth-century English village. So for Bella Ramsey’s hugely relatable Catherine, dubbed ‘Birdy’ because she keeps tiny pet birds, there are hopeless crushes, a crap dad, a beloved best friend who betrays her, and the fathomless mysteries of kissing. The confusion and embarrassment of getting her first period circa 1290 however, comes with decidedly scary complications. Now that she's – technically – marriable, her cash-strapped dad (Andrew Scott, the most charming of wastrels) is swiftly eyeing her up for dowry cash-in potential. Eeeek!

Given that a prime contender is Paul Kaye’s beardy, flatulent and horribly wealthy lord, the consequences are awful to contemplate, though Dunham knows she’s making a film for a family audience, so without downplaying the issues of being a powerless young girl in a patriarchal society (so what else is new?), keeps the proceedings light and breezy throughout. 

If this means dialling down historically appropriate filth and squalor, so be it, and in Ramsey’s open features she has an actress who not only looks like she's just walked out of some ecclesiastical painting of the era, but has a remarkable range that spans from coltish physical knockabout to genuine emotional heft. Eighteen at the time of filming (but playing four or so years younger), the Game of Thrones graduate is all childish mischief one minute, put-upon young woman the next. In either register, she’s totally captivating.

Lena Dunham’s knowing medieval story eschews savagery for a humane generosity

Still, Dunham’s brave move out of her contemporary comfort zone isn’t an unalloyed success. Occasionally flummoxed by the scale of the period canvas, she slathers too many somewhat shapeless scenes in Carter Burwell’s incessantly cheery a capella score, and gets stuck in a plodding pace that makes the movie seem longer than it actually is. 

The flaws though, don’t stop us getting caught up in Catherine’s world, and it’s refreshing to encounter a medieval story which eschews savagery for a humane generosity sure to spur many useful parent-child conversations. Far from perfect then, but, in an ending changed from the novel, unexpectedly stirring too.

In UK cinemas now and streaming on Prime Video on Oct 7.

Trevor Johnston
Written by
Trevor Johnston

Cast and crew

  • Director:Lena Dunham
  • Screenwriter:Lena Dunham
  • Cast:
    • Bella Ramsey
    • Billie Piper
    • Andrew Scott
    • Lesley Sharp
    • Joe Alwyn
    • Sophie Okonedo
    • Paul Kaye
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