England, 1290. Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), 14, risks being married to solve her family’s financial problems. It will take all of her cunning resilience – which she has in abundance – to avoid being married off.
The scathing humor of Girls encounters the brutal themes of game of thrones in Lena Dunham’s adaptation of this coming-of-age novel. Set in a close-knit village at a time when women are traded for money and marriage, the film follows wayward teenage girl Bella Ramsey as she navigates the myriad issues that arise from adolescence. Some were framed to strike a chord with modern young women: crushes, turbulent friendships and teenage jealousy. Others contemplate the authoritarian oppression women faced in medieval England; Catherine’s wedding, on the one hand (she hides her vintage stained sheets under the floorboards to hide her newfound reproductive potential), and another grueling storyline involving her mother (Billie Piper) and her growing number of miscarriages.
Dunham, best known for creating the aforementioned cheerful and self-deprecating HBO show Girlsand returning to directing feature films for the first time since 2010’s tongue-in-cheek indie comedy Tiny furniture, deftly balances Judy Bloom’s coming-of-age musings with the endless suffering endured by women of the era. In one scene, Catherine yearns for a herd of local boys; in another, she delivers to the camera a list of things forbidden to women while her father (Andrew Scott) smashes a stick on her bare arm. Even within the family unit, Dunham is able to invoke nuance. Scott, while playing a mischievous and greedy overlord who squandered his finances on decadence, is undeniably mischievous and magnetic, while Piper’s dry delivery is matched by boundless charm. Each masters the rhythms of Dunham’s comedy in effortless writing.
However, the film falters in its inability to resist the forced feminist flourishes. Slogan style sentiments – with chunky pop covers and repeats Flea bag–style, smashing fourth monologues – are awkwardly inserted into a film that would have easily been worn on the strength of its performances and source material. Yet even with these excessive efforts to make the film more accessible, Catherine called Birdy endures as a solid showcase for Dunham as a filmmaker capable of leaving her Girls heritage firmly rooted in the past.
Skip the somewhat over-the-top stylistic touches and you’ll discover a fun coming-of-age tale with three compelling performances from Bella Ramsey, Billie Piper and Andrew Scott.