There’s a certain expectation with historical films: furtive glances, stiff manners, uptight morals.
“Catherine Called Birdy” takes place in 13th-century England — and it opens with a mud fight. Hair is loose, shoes are off, gowns are ruined. Birdy, the titular protagonist (Bella Ramsey, “Game of Thrones”) welcomes us to her world with a crooked grin and a healthy layer of grime. So begins our story.
“Catherine Called Birdy” has been writer-director Lena Dunham’s dream for over a decade. Based on Karen Cushman’s novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a willful girl dodging arranged marriages and her own burgeoning womanhood. Ramsey is brilliant as Birdy, winning hearts with her irreverent narration and boundless energy. Birdy is made in the image of many previous historical leading ladies. Born into a noble family and expected to behave as such, she is far more interested in traipsing through the village with her goatherd friend Perkin (Michael Woolfitt, debut) and causing headaches for her discerning nursemaid Morwenna (Lesley Sharp, “Fate: The Winx Saga”). Birdy’s biggest problem is her father, the apathetic and frequently drunk Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott, “Fleabag”). He plans to relieve their family’s financial woes by securing an advantageous marriage for his only daughter. Birdy is revolted by his plan and embarks on a rollicking mission to thwart her many potential suitors.
“Catherine Called Birdy” is a coming-of-age story. As Birdy avoids marriage, she confronts the looming threat of maturity. Birdy must tackle changing relationships with her dear friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth, “Emma”) and her dashing Uncle George (Joe Alwyn, “The Favourite”). She worries over her pregnant mother Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper, “Doctor Who”) and learns to temper the rage she feels for her father. There is also the embarrassing arrival of her period, a first kiss and some really, really hot monks. Dunham’s script guides Birdy through it all with a gentle hand. It’s genuine, authentic and relatable — despite the centuries that lie between Birdy and the viewer.
The film is strong until the third act, where it stumbles. The tone shifts and pacing hastens, to the film’s detriment. There isn’t enough time spent with certain characters and several messy plotlines are tied up far too quickly. Still, while aspects are undeniably uneven, the heart and the humor remain consistent and genuine throughout.
In fact, “Catherine Called Birdy” is something of a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. Not often does a medieval coming-of-age story come to our screens, much less one bursting with wit and energy. It’s rare to see a period piece suggesting our forebears led lives as important as our own. It is even rarer to find one that does so from the perspective of a teenage girl. It is a movie about a 14-year-old girl that 14-year-old girls will actually like.
Birdy’s world is messy, colorful and easy to understand. Her clothes are cute, the jokes are funny and her problems are relatable. She just happens to live eight centuries removed from the present.
“Catherine Called Birdy” likely doesn’t rest at the top of many must-watch lists, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who puts it on wouldn’t stay until the end. It is historical without losing its humanity and youthful without feeling unimportant.
The more movies like “Catherine Called Birdy,” the better.
Daily Arts Contributor Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at email@example.com.