'Catherine Called Birdy' review: Lena Dunham goes medieval

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Think "Lady Bird" set in medieval times and you're within reach of "Catherine Called Birdy," writer-director Lena Dunham's bubbly '90s-set comedy — the 1290s, that is — about a headstrong adolescent making her way through the world.

That's Lady Catherine, known as "Birdy," and she's played by "Game of Thrones'" Bella Ramsey in a sharp, fresh star turn. Birdy is 14-years-old and she's doing anything she can to maintain her independence and avoid being married off, despite the realities of the world around her, which were anything but favorable to a teenage girl.

Joe Alwyn and Bella Ramsey in "Catherine Called Birdy."

Birdy's position is even more precarious given the financial dire straits of her father, Lord Rollo, played by "Fleabag's" Andrew Scott. Rollo has blown all his money on importing exotic animals and he knows Birdy is a valuable financial asset, and he seeks suitors for his daughter's hand in marriage in exchange for a lofty financial sum.

It's not personal, it's just what happened at the time. Dunham finds fertile comic ground playing with the time period, and juxtaposing medieval attitudes with modern day sensibilities. Characters all but wink at the camera, as the music cues — stripped back versions of songs by Elastica, Mazzy Star and the Angels, to name a few — are also knowing acknowledgements of modern times within the confines of the story's setting.

The worst of Birdy's husband candidates is a disgusting, flatulent creep to whom Birdy refers as "Shaggy Beard" (he's played by Paul Kaye), who comes on stronger the more Birdy resists. The money he can afford to pay makes the transaction a simple one, but Dunham uses the opportunity to color in her characters and offer a bit of fantasy fulfillment amid the harsh realities of the time. She earns her happy ending.

"Catherine Called Birdy," based on the 1994 children's novel, is Dunham's second film this year, following "Sharp Stick," and it shows the strength of her voice transcends story, setting and time period. And it shows that across all eras, some feelings are universal, and even medieval times can smell like teen spirit.



'Catherine Called Birdy'


Rated PG-13: for some suggestive material and thematic elements

Running time: 108 minutes

In theaters, on Amazon Prime Video Oct. 7