Catherine Called Birdy, Lena Dunham’s thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the millennial YA classic by Karen Cushman, opens in the mud. Fourteen-year-old Catherine, played with gusto by Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey, rolls in the dirt with her village friends, relishing the filth that coats her clothes, her cherubic face, her curtain of dark hair. The year is 1290, in the English shire of Lincoln, and Catherine is about the enter the muck that is adolescence – an indignity and a romp that Dunham, who captured both in the unfairly dismissed HBO series Girls, turns into a delicious treat.
It’s a welcome return for Dunham, whose previous feature as a writer-director this year, Sharp Stick, her first since 2011’s Tiny Furniture, was a strange disappointment. Whereas Sharp Stick’s coming-of-age plot, a mid-twenties sexual awakening, was hobbled by a bizarrely infantilized protagonist, Dunham finds a sweet spot here through Cushman’s flinty, undaunted medieval heroine. Feudal England is not a great place to be a young girl, even if you’re the only daughter of the village lord, but Ramsey’s Catherine has a keen nose for fun – which, in this era, can also double as survival. She stuffs rags soiled with her menstrual blood beneath the outhouse floorboards, lest her father, the feckless spendthrift Lord Rollo (a delightful Andrew Scott) learn that she is marriageable, and thus a solution for his debts. When the suitors arrive, she devises new ways to repulse them: a feral costume, the release of her pet birds, a “salve” of foraged shit.
All this she reports with satisfied glee, and endearing naivete (finding out where children come from and what’s a virgin is a running bit) in her diary, composed for her brother Edward (Archie Renaux), a monk at a local abbey. Said diary, the narration of Cushman’s 1994 novel, becomes one of the more successful voiceovers that I’ve seen, a spirited year-in-the-life in what could be described, favorably, as a 13th-century Eighth Grade. Catherine endures the trials of medieval girlhood – namely, the prospect of a forced marriage as soon as she can bear children – but also the relatable slogs of adolescence from time immemorial: reckoning with one’s period, hopeless crushes, mind-altering jealousy, friend breakups and makeups, recorder lessons.
Catherine detests her father, her slouchy brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman, another Thrones veteran and routinely funny here), but she most detests marriage, which she views, rightly, as a trap, particularly after her betrothal to a lecherous, repulsive old lord she calls Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye). “Men are horribly duplicitous creatures,” she tells her best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), while also swooning over her handsome uncle George (Joe Alwyn), a Crusade survivor with, she notes, remarkably good teeth.
Yet Dunham keeps what could be a depressing journey into enforced hardship for women (see: Thrones, or the historical accuracy excuse for the horrific childbirth death scene in The House of the Dragon) mirthful and light; the specter of what Catherine’s future would be with Shaggy Beard is enough to heighten the stakes of her thrashing against her father’s machinations. It’s also a joke; several scenes in which Catherine bristles against the intentions of adult men made me laugh out loud. The film strikes the right balance of anachronistic history – pop music drops at the emotional moments, a cheeky mention of consent, lived-in dialogue with winks to the murky past (“It’s just been a fortnight since I last washed you,” Catherine’s beloved nursemaid Morwenna (Lesley Sharp, a light) laments when the girl returns from the mud; Catherine waxes poetic about being allowed to attend a hanging.)
The cast, all delightful, recall similar films in period or tone whose comparisons cast Catherine Called Birdy in warmer light. It’s refreshing to see Ramsey, who played Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones, embody another medieval heroine without quite so much gore and gloom; with black, dagger-like eyes and a fierce countenance, she is impossible not to root for. As he did in The Favourite, Alwyn plays a comely, if mostly hapless, supporting character in what borders on light historical farce. Scott imbues the bawdy Lord Rollo with some of the live-wire unpredictability that endeared him as Fleabag’s Hot Priest, without the show’s fourth wall-breaking asides that crashed Netflix’s dreadful, clearly Fleabag-inspired Persuasion adaptation.
Though the midsection drags a bit – this is not a film that needs to be nearly two hours long, especially with a first half that cycled through menstrual rags and pranks on suitors at such a brisk, enjoyable clip – Dunham sticks the landing in a smart departure from the book, one that involves more choice than circumstance, not just for Catherine but for those who love her. The world is not kind to women – a point made a bit too on the nose by one gratuitous “woman are people too!” speech from Catherine – but the film, thankfully, is kind to its audience and its protagonist. In Dunham’s hands, the throughline of enduring and discovering one’s worth, however historically imagined, is at once a comfort and a lark.
Catherine Called Birdy is screening at the Toronto film festival; it will be released in US and UK cinemas on 23 September and available on Prime Video on 7 October.