“Old world problems, new world attitude” is the premise presented in the trailer for Catherine Called Birdy (2022). Based on Karen Cushman’s 1994 award-winning book of the same name, the coming-of-age dramedy takes place in England, near the end of the Crusades.
The film follows a trend — Dickinson (2019), Bridgerton (2020-2022) and 2022’s The Princess, Rosaline, etc. — which defies the conventions of traditional period pieces by depicting outrageously incorrigible heroines; employing diverse cast members; and using contemporary slang and/or pop songs from the recent past. Although screenwriter/director Lena Dunham gives in to most of these tropes, she doesn’t dumb down the dialogue as seen (or rather, heard) in Persuasion (2022). However, Birdy’s narration does spoon feed the viewer a bit too much.
To her credit, Dunham adds a medieval-sounding score to counterbalance Misty Miller’s new renditions of “Girl on Fire” (2012) by Alicia Keys, “Alright” (1995) by Supergrass, Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” (1981), and “My Boyfriend’s Back” (1963) first recorded by The Angels.
But even without accessing music from the 20th and 21st centuries, audiences can relate to the 13th century via the warm world created on camera. Julian Day’s Bohemian-printed costumes and Kave Quinn’s quilted and painterly sets feel fresh yet lived in by the timeless characters.
Lady Catherine, called Birdy (Bella Ramsey, who resembles a young Dunham) is a lot like Hannah Horvath from Dunham’s innovative HBO series Girls (2012-2017). Flawed and funny, Birdy keeps a diary to chart her crushes, musings, and feuds with friends.
Fortunately, noblewomen were allowed to read and write in 1290, despite not being credited with intelligence. The movie mentions this point, as well as referencing the repercussions girls endured for not being subservient; the risks women faced during childbirth; and the high mortality rate of the young.
Dunham applies her humor and humanity when presenting these serious issues without sugarcoating them. In fact, her screenplay exchanges the book’s Hollywood-ish ending for a more poignant one. The adaptation also omits one character’s backstory, eliminates Birdy’s final suitor, and adds a duel between Birdy’s father Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and her obnoxious fiancé Old Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye).
The latter change gives Rollo a major character arc and Scott becomes a scene stealer. That doesn’t mean the rest of the performers (including Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Lesley Sharp, Russell Brand, and especially Sophie Okonedo) aren’t excellent or that the 14-year-old Birdy doesn’t mature over the course of the film. Her initial irreverence and self-centeredness gradually lessen as she learns life lessons.
Relationship obstacles and familial obligations take center stage when Birdy menstruates and realizes she’ll be marketed into marriage for money. Presentists will rightfully look down on this practice though it was the custom during the High Middle Ages. In this sense, Catherine Called Birdy is the ultimate period piece.
Catherine Called Birdy is recommended and can currently be seen in cinemas and streamed on Prime Video.