Being a teenage girl is never easy, and while the current crop of 14-year-olds might have to contend with TikTok and homework, spare a thought for the young women of Medieval England – in particular young Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), better know as “Birdy”. As the daughter of a Lincolnshire Lord (Andrew Scott) and his wife (Billie Piper) Birdy has led a fairly charmed life thus far, rolling in the mud with her friends and generally eschewing any sort of ‘lady-like’ behaviour, but Daddy’s strapped for cash and as Birdy comes of age, she presents a lucrative opportunity to secure a hefty dowry. Birdy, appalled at the idea of being married off to any man – much less the boorish men her father keeps picking out – begins to rebel, attempting to dissuade her suitors in imaginative fashion.
Lena Dunham serves as both director and screenwriter, adapting Karen Cushman’s 1994 young adult novel of the same name, which documents a year in Birdy’s life through diary entries. Dunham retains the diary mechanic, with Birdy’s voice-over offering witty asides about the on-screen events and her teenage angst regarding her vexing situation. Dunham, who has always excelled at capturing the capricious, sometimes self-involved nature of girlhood, retains Birdy’s intelligence and good humour in her script, which incorporates old-fashioned dialect while resisting the temptation to go all-in on the anachronisms, as seems to be the current fashion with period dramas (thanks a lot, Yorgos Lanthimos).
There is one major modern touch – a soundtrack comprised of reworked covers of 90s bangers including Supergrass’ Alright and Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You. This compliments Birdy’s youthful exuberance, and feels like a fitting way to pay tribute to the book’s 90s origins, as well as evoking Brian Helgeland’s excellent 2001 medival romp, A Knight’s Tale (the films also share a composer in Carter Burwell).
A strong ensemble compliment Dunham’s boisterous script. Ramsey makes for an impish, sympathetic heroine, and there’s even a winning turn from Joe Alwyn as Catherine’s beloved Uncle George, who returns from the Crusades battle-weary and morose. But it’s Andrew Scott and Billie Piper who steal the show as Birdy’s parents, especially in a moving labour scene, and there’s a particular sense of character growth for Lord Rollo, who slowly comes to understand his headstrong daughter and starts to change his selfish ways. Dunham handles heavy subjects – including infant mortality and maternal death – with sensitivity and care, and the film delivers moments of emotional poignancy as gracefully as it does slapstick.
Warmth radiates from every detail, from the thoughtful costume design (Lord Rollo’s tiger-print teal robe is a highlight) to the chemistry between Ramsey and her on-screen family. It’s a sweet, remarkably fresh coming-of-age film, and while Catherine, Called Birdy’s overarching messages about the importance of family and friends over boys might be familiar to the teen movie canon, Dunham finds enough fertile ground in delivery that her medieval dramedy never outstays its welcome.
Liked Sharp Stick a lot, keen to see another side of Dunham. 4
Andrew Scott is a scene-stealer. 4
Superbly cast period dramedy with charm to spare. 4
Bella Ramsey, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn