Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy would’ve been my favorite movie if it existed when I was 14. With its spirited heroine rebelling against tradition in a period setting, this charming adaptation of Karen Cushman’s Newberry Award-winning middle-grade novel was very much my shit as a teen, as evidenced by the frequent presence of Ever After in our VCR. But lucky for them, today’s teenagers — and frankly, adults too — have Catherine Called Birdy, a quite marvelous medieval comedy worthy of both its beloved source material and sure-to-be-repeat viewing.
Young actress Bella Ramsey was one of the few highlights of the later seasons of Game of Thrones, and she brings a similar, yet distinct, energy to the title character here that she did to playing fierce Lyanna Mormont on the HBO series. We first meet a filthy Catherine, emanating pure joy as she flings clumps in an epic mud fight. Within just a few scenes, we immediately want the best for this feisty, smart girl, which is unfortunate because Catherine Called Birdy takes place in 1290 in England, where there were few options for young women. Catherine is neither a princess nor a peasant, but her fate is set: she must marry for money. Her family has a good name courtesy of her mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), but they have little wealth, and her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), sees Catherine’s bride price as their only salvation. Yet Catherine wants more from life than to be married, so our mischievous heroine scares off suitor after suitor with her quick wit and an occasional punch to the nose, recounting it all in her diary — and via voiceover narration.
Those wary of Dunham’s brand of self-obsessed, confrontational comedy and, uhh, tweets needn’t worry about Catherine Called Birdy. Doing career-best work, the writer-director makes some smart edits to the source material for her adaptation, which work well for a movie released decades after the novel’s publication. Book readers will witness a profound change from the book’s ending — that still feels true to the character and the story’s themes — but she also evolves Catherine’s father from a physically abusive brute into a secretly loving jokester, making him far more sympathetic to 2022 audiences. (The fact that he’s played by Fleabag’s Scott also doesn’t hurt.)
The other marked departure from Cushman’s book is the inclusion of talk of sex and periods, which isn’t much of a surprise given Dunham’s involvement. But this is the PG-13 version of the writer/director, and the moment Catherine gets her first period is funny and kid-appropriate, dodging the very adult frankness present in Girls and Sharp Stick. If you didn’t know Dunham was behind the camera, you likely wouldn’t suspect that the provocateur made the gently sweet Catherine Called Birdy.
Dunham takes a loose, playful approach, rather than the traditional, more staid style usually applied to films set in this period. This is not only more easily accessible for a young audience, but it’s on theme as well; Catherine rails against the rules set for her gender and position, and she’s ahead of her time. It’s easy to see what Dunham connected with in the material, given its appeal to anyone who wants to rebel against societal expectations. Similar to the book’s prose, which was all in diary form, the dialogue in this adaptation doesn’t feel stuffy or stuck in the 13th century. Thankfully, Catherine Called Birdy doesn’t give me flashbacks to the nightmares of my Middle English-heavy courses as a literature major, but it also doesn’t feel too modern à la Persuasion. It feels natural and lively, suitable for both the era it’s depicting as well as the time it’s being watched. The film has a similar vibe to Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 version of Emma, which stayed true to Jane Austen’s novel while feeling fresh. A Knight’s Tale and its inclusion of modern music also feel like a touchstone, with Catherine Called Birdy’s soundtrack featuring singer Misty Miller’s medieval-inflected, acoustic-guitar-driven covers of songs like Supergrass’ “Alright,” Elastica’s “Connection,” and Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.”
The novel Catherine Called Birdy is a mainstay on school reading lists, but it never feels like homework. Dunham’s adaptation is a similar delight, evoking both near-constant giggles and such a pure affection for Catherine herself that you worry your heart might burst. Though the centuries-ago setting may seem initially foreign to modern viewers, it’s difficult not to identify with the lovable character and her plight of simply wanting to choose her destiny in a world that has a narrow view of what girls can and can’t do.
“Catherine Called Birdy” is in limited release now. It streams on Amazon Prime on Friday.