Catherine Called Birdy Review: Lena Dunham Takes the Piss Out of Medieval Times

The film sees Catherine as a feminist crusader who undermines the sexist traditions of her time.

Catherine Called Birdy
Photo: Amazon Studios

With Catherine Called Birdy, writer-director Lena Dunham departs for the first time from original stories of contemporary twentysomething women stumbling through early adulthood. But while this period piece retains Dunham’s banter-heavy comedic sensibilities, what’s conspicuously absent is the critical, trenchant eye that she trained on her characters in previous efforts like Tiny Furniture and Girls.

An adaptation of Karen Cushman’s popular children’s novel of the same name, the film follows the 14-year-old Catherine (Bella Ramsey), a plucky princess living in medieval England. Throughout, Catherine routinely sabotages the various marriage courtships arranged by her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), whose dwindling fortune forces him to find a wealthy suitor for his rebellious daughter. The events of the film are episodic and very much prone to repetitiveness, with Dunham seemingly designing each of Catherine’s subversive escapades as nothing other than a means to joke about retrograde medieval customs.

In simplistic and self-congratulatory fashion, Dunham renders Catherine, who’s nicknamed Birdy due to her affinity for keeping birds as pets, as a sort of feminist crusader who undermines the sexist traditions of her time period. Elsewhere, the stubborn focus on self-aware comedy even inadvertently trivializes Dunham’s characteristically frank treatment of female sexuality. Moments such as Catherine dealing with the onset of her menstrual cycle and candidly discussing it with her maid, Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), simply become yet another opportunity to poke fun at old English folks’ antiquated views on such matters.

For a film that begins with its mischievous main character participating in a ribald mud fight, Catherine Called Birdy feels oddly lifeless. This is even compounded by the lack of stakes, given how easily Catherine finagles her way out of every conflict, and often due to help from characters who come around to agree with her antipathy toward a staid social order. Catherine can subsequently seem to do no wrong in the film, because every one of her actions is subject to fawning admiration. This makes her appear not as the kind of complicated young woman Dunham has a knack for depicting, but instead as a figure akin to an infallible superhero.

Score: 
 Cast: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Paul Kaye, Dean-Charles Chapman, Isis Hainsworth  Director: Lena Dunham  Screenwriter: Lena Dunham  Distributor: Amazon Studios  Running Time: 108 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2022

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