Catherine Called Birdy has a great personality and vibrant energy but a stumbling approach to its Middle Ages coming-of-age story.
Published on February 17, 2023
Rating 3 /5
Lena Dunham brings Karen Cushman’s historical novel about romance and growing up to the big screen in a relevant manner. Far from the stuffy staging of medieval meanderings, this comedy feels as fresh and relevant today despite taking place in the past. Sure, it has its modern dashes of timing and absurdity as it weaves a meaningful feminist tale, but that only makes it all the more engaging and far from the stuffy nature of a lukewarm costume drama.
Credit is due to Bella Ramsey in the lead role of Catherine, a young and plucky teenage girl who is still learning how her patriarchal world works. She narrates her own story, describing how she understands how her kingdom handles children, womanhood, and marriage. This leads to such awkward moments as Bella struggles to hide her period, fearing she is bleeding out when nobody bothers to explain how her body works. She’ll also ask about virginity and only be given mild answers by adults without the truth. She constantly struggles to know everything about her environment and faces it with wry humor and fierce determination.
She also has a fascinating way in which she deciphers the world. For example, her kingdom is graced with a visit by Sir Henry Murgaw, a filthy man whom Catherine dubs Shaggy Beard. Through a sordid series of births, marriages, and money issues, Birdy ultimately ends up being wed off to Shaggy Beard. To be married so young and to a man so old and unbecoming is an unjust move that Catherine rallies against. Even when marriage is presented more as a sacrifice, it does not sit right with her. Her fighting spirit thankfully rubs off on the others of her kingdom to create an equal world where women are no longer currency for feuding and failing families.
As fantastical as a revisionist Middle Ages comedy turns out to be, this film slowly works its magic. Catherine’s inquisitive and thoughtful nature makes her an enduring character you want to see succeed. At the same time, however, it almost feels like the odds are too heavily stacked against her that something far more fantastical would have to occur to present the happy ending for this comedic yet enraging tale. This film could use a bolder finale rather than maintaining its dapper tone of amusingly moseying from addressing the patriarchy and shouting it down long enough to go away. The ultimate resolve is a mixed bag of an ending where the men who are fools fumble and the noblemen fight for women. It feels like too much of a simplification for a story like this, where even Catherine's freedom feels dependent on another man taking up his sword.
Catherine Called Birdy has a great personality and vibrant energy but a stumbling approach to its Middle Ages coming-of-age story. It feels less like a dramatic tale about growing up and more like a handful of episodes from a TV series. Thankfully, it draws from what looks like the better episodes and is held together almost entirely by Bella Ramsey being the brightest highlight of this picture.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.