Who could have possibly anticipated that, nearly a decade ago when “Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham announced in an early episode of the ground-breaking HBO series that her Hannah Horvath might “be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation” that she really meant that she was the voice of…medieval tweens?
Dunham’s fourth film adapts Karen Cushman’s lauded 1994 YA novel “Catherine, Called Birdy” (Dunham’s title does away with the comma, one of many smart changes she uses to freshen up the story) into a wildly entertaining coming-of-age comedy that captures both Dunham’s spirit and the thrust of Cushman’s novel. Starring “Games of Thrones” breakout Bella Ramsey in the title role, the film — set in medieval England — follows young Catherine (called “Birdy,” of course) as she navigates her way through a world uninterested (and unaccustomed) to caring about the whims and wishes of its women.
If this sounds at all staid to you, you really must read Cushman’s novel, which is fresh and funny in so many ways. And then, you really must see Dunham’s film, which is her best yet, and proof that even Hannah’s most maligned declarations (as penned and delivered by Dunham) have proven to be true.
The film is Dunham’s second of 2022, following on the heels of her semi-secret Sundance dramedy “Sharp Stick,” which was released earlier this summer by indie outfit Utopia. And while this writer is typically loathe to inject herself into reviews, I’ll break my own rules this time: I despised “Sharp Stick.” I grew deeply weary of “Girls.” Dunham’s output has not worked for me in a very long time. “Catherine Called Birdy” is so good, so raucous and wild and wise and witty, that it not only makes me eager to write in alliterative adjectives, but to reconsider my views on everything else she’s made in recent years. It’s wonderful.
Dunham, who also adapted the novel, has taken a few liberties with Cushman’s novel, some minor (a light tightening of Birdy’s family tree, for instance), and some significantly larger (no spoilers, but the film’s final act differs quite a bit from the source material), though all of which speak to Dunham’s keen understanding of the original novel, her own modern obsessions, and presumably the desire to deliver her first genuine crowdpleaser. They all work. (So too does Kave Quinn’s production design, centered on Birdy’s family’s castle, plus Julian Day’s lightly anachronistic but lovely costumes.) Other swings aren’t as successful, including Dunham’s attempt to use a modern soundtrack, which is ambitious but also unnecessary.
When we first meet Birdy, she’s on the cusp of a major life change — kudos to any film that treats the terror of one’s first periods with this much humor and understanding — and forced to chronicle every second of it in her own diary, as suggested by her uptight older brother (Archie Renaux). Her other brother (fellow “GoT” alum Dean-Charles Chapman) is making his own halting in-roads to adulthood, her best pal Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) is struggling with his maturation, and her beloved mother (Billie Piper) is dead-set on delivering yet another (hopefully alive this time) baby into their aristrocratic-ish family.
Mostly, though, there’s her silly father Sir Rollo (“hot priest” Andrew Scott, having the best time ever), a layabout overspender prone to saying things like men cannot “live on bread and water and chitchat alone” (thus why he, uh, bought himself a tiger to help liven up the days; it arrives at their manor already dead). When Rollo realizes the family fortune is running dry, he alights on a plan to marry Birdy off to a rich suitor and collect a fat dowry in the process.
This will, of course, not work for Birdy, who spends much of the film hilariously rebuffing a slew of truly heinous potential husbands. It’s frisky and funny, but Dunham doesn’t flinch at the truth at its heart: being a lady in medieval times sucked. Birdy, however, is not at all interested in that sort of life, even if we also keenly understanding there’s nothing else for her.
While Birdy is portrayed as a fierce budding feminist, she’s not without the hormonal swings that accompany puberty. In short: her desire to be her own woman (free of the many stupid men who already exist in her life, and the many stupid men her father will attempt to marry her off to over the course of the film) doesn’t get in her way of noticing the appeal of the coarser sex on occasion. She crushes on her uncle (a zippy Joe Alwyn). She thinks all the monks who her eldest brother is studying alongside are hot. She’s a typical tween, just in the 13th century.
What’s a girl to do? Live it up the best way she knows how, finding her joys in places that might not feel so unfamiliar to the contemporary audience treated to the joy that is “Catherine Called Birdy.” Being a woman has never been easy, being the “voice of a generation” even harder, but Dunham treats both high callings with respect, love, and nothing short of delight. Medieval dramas and Dunham’s voice have never been as vital as they are here, and both fly very high indeed.
“Catherine Called Birdy” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon will release the film in theaters on Friday, September 23 and streaming on Prime Video on Friday, October 7.