Lena Dunham is a very specific voice. Whether it was on HBO’s hit Girls or even her directorial debut Tiny Furniture, it’s easily distinguishable when something is hers. Earlier this year, at the Sundance Film Festival, she debuted Sharp Stick, a movie that proved divisive (even though I liked it, as you can see here), yet still clearly was a work filtered through her specific lens. So, it’s a bit of a surprise, albeit a very pleasant one, that it turns out Dunham is just as adept at telling less aggressively adult stories. Catherine Called Birdy is an adaptation of a children’s novel that remains pointedly aimed at kids, yet is as witty as anything she’s done before. Whatever inspired her to tackle this flick, the results more than speak for themselves.
Catherine Called Birdy has Dunham’s trademark spunk, just in a different package than usual. She might not be the first person you think of to helm a story set in the thirteenth century, but damn if she doesn’t pull it off better than you’d expect. Chalk this up to a pleasing and surprising work from a talented artist who lately hasn’t been getting the credit she deserves.
Taking place in the year 1290, this is the story of Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), who is known to most as Birdy. The youngest child of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), Birdy spends her days in the medieval english village of Stonebridge. Running around her family’s manor, she’s a witty teen, even while her father’s financial misdeeds are threatening to ruin everything. Desperate, Rollo plans to marry Birdy off, getting some much needed funds in the process. However, he underestimates just how clever his daughter truly is.
Not only is Birdy quick to rid herself of any suitor that comes calling, like the one from Kent (Russell Brand), often in pretty amusing ways, she does it with a spirit of adventure that makes her quite the heroine. While these men are awful, some, like George (Joe Alwyn), strike her fancy more. Birdy believes in her own independence, and if her parents don’t, then she’ll take matters into her own hands. As the suitors showing up get worse and worse, they eventually are presented with the ultimate test of love for their daughter, who up until now has just been a means to an end.
There’s a potential star-making role here by Bella Ramsey. She displays charm, spunk, and spirit, much like the character. Watching Ramsey in action, especially when inaccurately describing her first period or how a woman gets pregnant, you can she she just has that It Factor to her. Among the rest of the above mentioned cast, the only one to really leave an impression is Andrew Scott, as he’s enjoying himself immensely. Additional supporting players include Dean-Charles Chapman, Isis Hainsworth, Ralph Ineson, Paul Kaye, Sophie Okonedo, Archie Renaux, Lesley Sharp, and plenty more. Ramsey is just the star, through and through.
Writer/director Lena Dunham is clearly having a good time making Catherine Called Birdy, and it shows. Adapting the book by Karen Cushman, she leans into finding the timeless girl power of it all. Despite a fairly plain visual aesthetic, her writing is more than on point enough to make up for it. Dunham certainly has shown that her style and personality works now in a wide variety of potential stories.
Catherine Called Birdy is a lot more fun than you might be expecting. While decidedly small, it’s more than content to just be a solid success and nothing more. Mostly, it functions as a star vehicle for Ramsey and to showcase a new side of Dunham behind the camera. To that end, it more than adequately achieves its goals.