Catherine Called Birdy is, for better or worse, a Lena Dunham film. Frankly, the film is a force of personality and confidence that any quarrels I had with it were quickly brushed aside. Dunham’s adaptation of the 1994 beloved children’s novel set in medieval England is rooted in love and admiration for both the source material and women in general.
It should be no surprise that Dunham’s film, which she also wrote, is a love letter to womanhood, for anyone who knows her work knows it is a staple of hers.
Catherine Called Birdy is narrated by the energetic Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey). Called Birdy by her friends and family, the fourteen-year-old can’t seem to understand why her older brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman) is allowed more and more freedom while she appears to be bound by a growing number of societal restraints. But, unfortunately, her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), has spent his wife Lady Aislinn’s (Billie Piper) fortune and now must marry Birdy off to the wealthiest suitor they can find.
Although set in the 13th century, Dunham infuses the story with a modern sensibility. Dunham’s dialogue is somewhat naturalistic in how characters often feel like they are rushing to speak first, sometimes overlapping or repeating themselves. At times, she will try to blend in Olde English sounding words, such as “mayhaps,” and others to try and keep the story tethered to its medieval roots. While I found it somewhat distracting at times, it never really took me out of the movie.
Probably because Bella Ramsey is a force of nature, her Birdy is like a wrecking ball as she crashes through every scene with a reckless enthusiasm that comes from being young and alive. How Dunham and her camerawoman Laurie Rose capture the vivaciousness of youth is an achievement all its own.
Ramsey’s narration is breathless as she journals her day-to-day life with her oldest brother, a monk named Edward (Archie Renaux). “Promise me you shall read, and read and read and read some more. And write, too. Knowing your own story will be your salvation.”
Birdy sometimes visits the monastery and is shocked to discover that the monestary is packed with cute boys. Dunham cheekily frames this moment with Birdy wrapped around a statue of the crucifix, her fingers idly caressing the shredded abs of their Lord and Saviour as the monks pass by.
Birdy can be spoiled, naive, rude, selfish, and caring. Ramsey embodies this all with such bravado that even if you don’t like the film, I find it impossible that you can walk away, not impressed with Ramsey’s performance. She plays Birdy with a fearlessness that is unafraid that we might be annoyed or not like her.
Thankfully she has her loyal nursemaid Morwenna (Leslie Sharpe) to keep her in check. Or she tries to. Dunham shrewdly gives us little moments that show us a Morwenna is something more than just a servant for Birdy. She has desires and dreams of her own, but she also cares deeply for Birdy and tries her best while she doesn’t change that; she at least conforms enough so she can survive the harsh, unforgiving world. Like Lady Aislinn, she fears for Birdy and feels her pain, realizing that while life isn’t fair, it seems particularly unfair toward women.
For the most part, Dunham’s script allows characters to be neither villains nor heroes, but instead, people struggle to listen to their better angels. For example, Scott’s Lord Rollo is a vain twit who cares only about status, or so he appears to be at first glance. But as Catherine Called Birdy unfolds, we see a man scared of the consequences of his foolish actions while also realizing that he may love his daughter more than he realizes.
Piper’s Lady Aslinn adores Birdy but is also afraid for her. In one scene, Birdy asks her mother how she got a nasty burn on her neck. “I was once willful, too, and my father showed me how he felt about that with the iron. So, when you try to bend the ways of the world, I cheer for you, but I also fear for you.” She ends her monologue with, “There are worse fathers than yours.”
A fact that Birdy knows well. Lord Sidebottom (David Bradley), the father of Birdy’s best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), has plans for Aelis to marry a nine-year-old purely for the dowry. Lord Rollo smacks Birdy’s hands when she misbehaves, but she is stunned to learn that Aelis is whipped by her father when she steps out of line.
Birdy slowly begins to realize how her status and family grant her a particular privilege in class and simple human mercy. Unfortunately, Lord Rollo has spent the family’s fortune and now must marry off Birdy to save the family, but Dunham seems to hold not righteous anger but a sort of pity for Rollo. A pity that turns into admiration towards the end when Lord Rollos reveals that he’s grown not only a spine but a fatherly consciousness.
Dunham infuses modern sociopolitics into 13th-century England with mixed success. Take Birdy’s other best friend, Perkins (Michael Woolfitt), the goat herder. Friends since childhood, she offers her hand in marriage to him as an escape from her womanly duties. But Perkins has no desire to marry her or any woman. So Birdy asks if he’d instead marry a man. When he says yes, she pulls him in for a comforting hug.
But then there’s the colorblind casting. On the one hand, I congratulate Dunham for going out of her way to clear the low bar of not making an all-white coming-of-age movie. On the other hand, Dunham curiously has no commentary on how race and class interact with and aid the patriarchy.
The non-white characters are rarely allowed to be as fleshed out as their white counterparts. The one exception is Ethelfritha Rose Splinter of Devon (Sophie Okonedo), a wealthy widow marries Birdy’s favorite uncle George (Joe Alwyn). A union Birdy is jealous of and wishes she was the one marrying George-but so does Aelice. Love triangle aside, Okonedo breathes life into Ethelfritha, making her a vibrant and unpredictable character full of mercurial gaiety.
But sooner rather than later, Birdy must marry. Unfortunately, the much older, crude, slovenly Sir Henry John Murgaw III (Paul Kaye) seems to be Birdy’s best “hope.” Called “Shaggy Beard” by Birdy and everyone, Murgaw is the closest Dunham gets to having a true unrepentant villain. But it is not villainy that makes him so grotesque, so much as his unwieldy entitlement. He is a man of such vulgar crudeness that even Rollo is hesitant to give his daughter to such an ogre.
Murgaw, in many ways, is all the sins of the patriarchy wrapped into one slobbering grotesque character. A reflection for Rollo to see what he enables while also symbolizing all of Birdy’s fear about what marriage means, enslavement, being reduced to a broodmare, and loneliness. The whole of cinema often uses women as symbols and ciphers in stories men tell. So it’s refreshing to see a man employed in the same way. Murgaw isn’t a character so much as the summation of everything wrong with the men of Birdy’s time-and ours.
Catherine Called Birdy is a big old stick in the eye of patriarchy. Yet, it also sidesteps the trap of making its women saints. Instead, Dunham makes her women difficult, prideful, cowardly, and spiteful and cherishes them for it.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios
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