“The stars and my family align to make my life black and miserable,” writes Catherine, often called Little Bird or Birdy, in the opening pages of Karen Cushman’s Newbery Medal-winning novel Catherine, Called Birdy. The book is a first-person account written from the perspective of a precocious young girl in medieval England who defies all that defines her. Birdy has no desire to wed, no desire to read, no desire to sit and sew or do spinning. She’d rather run around outside, playing with goats or her friend Perkin, or do anything that hasn’t been asked of her. She is, to put it mildly, a huge brat.
Beyond her distinctive attitude, however, Birdy is a dream protagonist: complex, strange, funny, and altogether winning. What’s more, she’s the perfect muse for writer/director Lena Dunham, whose film adaptation of the novel (with the same title, minus a comma) opens to limited theaters on Friday and Amazon Prime on Oct. 7. Though Dunham takes a fair amount of liberties with her adaptation of Cushman’s novel, the film is her best work to date, rich with her signature sense of humor and with a nuanced balance between the loving and brutal parts of life.
Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy is much more plotted than the novel, which centers on the drama surrounding the impending marriage of its titular character, played by Bella Ramsey, a scene stealer from Game of Thrones’ later seasons. If you didn’t make it far enough in the doomed HBO show, Ramsey’s turn in Birdy will be a pleasant surprise: She is an exciting, capable newcomer whose performance is devoid of technical theatrics or youthful preening. Birdy is hawkish and petulant — charming, but you have to be able to tolerate her first — and the film is refreshingly willing to make her look bad, which it often does. The source of her woes is that her period has come at last, signaling to her brutish, drunken father (Andrew Scott) that she’s ready to wed and thus acquire a dowry that can save the family’s finances. Scott, known best to Tumblr-era millennials at Moriarty from the BBC’s Sherlock and to Amazon Prime subscribers as the “Hot Priest” from Fleabag, gives a performance so devastating it’ll be made into Twitter clips that circulate every six weeks for years to come.
The problem, of course, is that Birdy doesn’t want to be a wife, or anything everyone else wants her to be. She wants — needs, rather — to be herself without any boundaries or barriers. She’s often stuck in the care of her loving but stern handmaiden, Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), and barred from all the fun stuff in life like going to public hangings with her lower-class friends Perkin and Meg (Michael Woolfitt and Rita Bernard-Shaw, respectively). Every now and then Birdy’s days are made brighter by her best friend Aelis (Isis Hayworth) or her hunky Uncle George (Joe Alwyn — so good that I truly believe that Dunham and Taylor Swift are friends), but mostly she slogs her way through chores and meetings with potential suitors, played with delightful specificity by British comedians like Paul Kaye and Russell Brand.
Birdy’s apprehension towards adulthood, and specifically adult relationships, is rooted in her concerns over her parents’ marriage. Her father, who has squandered the family fortune on exotic pets, can be frustrating and callous, especially in comparison to her loving, doting mother (Billie Piper — rarely more beautiful and, dare I say, perfect), who has suffered several miscarriages. That Birdy’s father is determined to have another child at the expense of his wife’s health is not only egregious but a violence that no one in the family seems willing to speak about, except Birdy.
Catherine Called Birdy is rich with all of the material that Dunham has been so fascinated by in her work, both fiction and nonfiction alike — relationships between men and women, female autonomy, childbirth, motherhood, and having a little attitude. What makes the film so thrilling is to see how Birdy only learns to grow as she bears witness to the relationships around her: her friend’s contractual marriage to a literal child, her Uncle George’s wedding to an older woman (the reliably great Sophie Okenedo, coming in with a monologue at the 11th hour that brings the film together), her parents’ complicated marriage. Catherine Called Birdy is dense with complicated relationships between people — as was Girls, as was Dunham’s earlier film this year, Sharp Stick — but here it is as instructional as it is funny and illuminating. It understands that for Birdy to become a real person she must embrace the fact of others — to see them as people too.
To have the whole Dunham “thing” — a hard-to-describe idiosyncrasy rife with jokes and apt observations — pitched towards a younger audience feels like the biggest “duh” moment in film in a long time. Dunham is perhaps the best mentor that young adults could have: unique, clever, willing to get into trouble but never slow to apologize. Though the film is for a YA audience, as was the original text, it is certainly more on the adult side, and it is far more mature about relationships and sex and even queerness than some of its PG-13 big budget superhero counterparts.
It understands that for Birdy to become a real person she must embrace the fact of others — to see them as people too.
Birdy may bristle the feathers of those who take umbrage with slightly anachronistic language, or even more anachronistic needle drops. Regarding the former: Dunham, about whom a number of things can be said or written, has never had a bad needle drop in the history of her artistic career. The question of dialogue, however, goes back to her film’s source material. Birdy may use period-correct vocabulary but it is written with a modern cadence: diary entries are punctuated like jokes, Birdy cusses, and so on. Dunham’s Birdy is perhaps a little more modern, but in no way egregious. Scenes in which she and Aelis bemoan men, who are horrible, may feel no different than a “male tears” mug, but as Dunham recently pointed out on Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast, this is something girls back then would have believed. They would have seen their peers and sisters sold off to men three times their age; that they would say nothing about it would be the more surprising element. Compared to other anachronistic period pieces — Netflix’s Persuasion, for instance — Birdy gets this right: It’s not so much that people in the past should sound like us so we can understand them, but that people in the past were not all that different from us in the first place.
It’s easy to rave about Catherine Called Birdy because of its appeal to pathos as well as its audience. It helps, of course, that the film has immaculate and colorful production design; that on a technical level, Dunham is an adept and specific director. I found myself not only moved as a person at my current age — more than twice that of its intended audience — but because it’s the type of film that I would have been watching to the point of obsession if it had come out when I was 14. I mean, a movie with a pearl choker-wearing Andrew Scott and Taylor Swift’s blonde BF? Sign me up.
Dunham’s natural knack for what makes YA actually good — its adulthood, for one — would make her a worthy candidate to adapt other beloved texts, something by E.L. Konigsburg or even Gail Carson Levine. Hell, give her the rights to anything that won a Newbery. As a longtime viewer of Dunham’s work and as one of many who has watched her grow both on-screen and off, Catherine Called Birdy encompasses all that is great about her vision, so often humanist and warm without shying away from pain or violence. She wants us to know that it’s complicated to be a girl, but joyful too. A tale as old as time.