Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Lena Dunham
Writers: Lena Dunham, Karen Cushman (based on the book by)
Starring: Bella Ramsey, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn, Lesley Sharp, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Kaye, Dean-Charles Chapman, Archie Renaux, Isis Hainsworth, David Bradley
By Sarah Manvel
Writer-director Lena Dunham’s speciality is depicting how people learn about themselves through their sexual choices. In the seven seasons of her TV show, “Girls,” the main characters’ sexual exploits were much more important than any of their career ones. People don’t like to admit this, but this is a secretly accurate depiction of how many people live. In her most recent movie, “Sharp Stick” (2022), a young woman uses a graphic sexual checklist in an attempt to force emotional maturity onto herself, which works only through the intervention of a sex worker. This highly complicated, highly sexualised back catalogue means that Ms Dunham’s choice to adapt the young adult novel “Catherine Called Birdy” is all of a piece. Written by Karen Cushman and published in 1994 (when Ms Dunham was eight), it’s the diary of a English lady in the late thirteenth century who has achieved marriageable age, and her feelings about her looming future as a sexual creature. She keeps pet birds, as a metaphor, and is twelve years old.
In the movie, Birdy (Bella Ramsey) is fourteen, but a very young fourteen; the opening scene shows her amidst a mud fight with the peasants who work in her family’s castle. The diary is now letters to her older brother Edward the Monk (Archie Renaux); there’s another brother in the castle, Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman), with whom she bickers constantly. Her father Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) is an unimpressive drunk; her mother Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper, underused) is permanently pregnant, though no child after Birdy has survived. Birdy shares a bed with lifelong nanny Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), who discovers Birdy has begun menstruating – the fact Birdy knows nothing about her body or how babies are made is laughable, but we’ll let that go. The family is in financial trouble, and a dowry for Birdy now she’s fertile would solve all their problems. But Birdy, still being a spoiled child, could care less about what other people need. Just think of the laundry resulting from that opening scene.
Ms Ramsey manages to thread the very tricky needle of making Birdy into a charmingly rowdy kid and not an arrogant little demon. It’s clear the adults around Birdy envy her wildness, which is why they don’t control it. Birdy’s best friend, the slightly older Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), has no such understanding family; her father (David Bradley) marries her off to a nine-year-old, for the money, despite Aelis having feelings for Birdy’s Uncle George (Joe Alwyn). But George, for the money, marries the older widow Ethelfritha (a charming Sophie Okonedo). Birdy would love to hate Ethelfritha, but she’s a delight. And while all this is going on, Rollo is bringing potential husbands for Birdy around, each more repellent than the last. Birdy’s brattishness is able to turn all of them away, except one: Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye), who makes himself known to her by drunkenly leaping on a banquet table and farting across the room. Birdy brings out her antics, but those turn Shaggy Beard on, and he makes clear through age-appropriate dialogue he plans to break her, like a horse. Fortunately Lady Aislinn is again pregnant, and Birdy’s whining to be allowed to meet the new baby before being married off buys her some time. But then what?
Complaining that none of this is historically accurate is silly, but unfortunately it needs to be done. No oldest son was ever sent off to be a monk; that was for surplus younger sons. But that’s a minor quibble compares to the hook on which the story hangs: in arranging for Birdy to marry, Rollo is choosing the financial support of an entire castle full of people over the happiness of his daughter. His inability to compel Birdy to accept the responsibility that matches her privilege is seen as growth for him, and the fact the money’s running out has no consequences. In reality a child like Birdy would have had the facts of life beaten into her from a very young age, and the misogyny of the time would have made her personal happiness utterly irrelevant against so many hungry bellies.
That is a very harsh lesson, so it’s no surprise Ms Dunham has watered it down. A coming-of-age story where often-bitter reality can be ignored by the force of personal privilege aligns perfectly with the worldview Ms Dunham has built her career around, and which, love or hate it, has struck such a strong global chord. However, making Birdy’s dilemma solely a family matter removes the larger issues about how men control women’s bodies, which remain unfortunately ever-relevant. Ms Piper, a world-class actress who has made her name playing women writhing in various societal traps, has little to do apart from repeated childbirth scenes. This is because Ms Dunham is still as emotionally young as her heroine. She still doesn’t understand that responsibility for others has the dramatic heft at least equal to figuring out who someone with a silver spoon wants to f**k. There’s a small scene where the music choice makes this immaturity perfectly clear: an (anachronistic) sword-fighting lesson by Uncle George to the soundtrack of a cover version of “My Boyfriend’s Back”. This embarrassing crush on her uncle makes clear Birdy wants nothing other than to remain the same irritating child forever. Is that truly the big dream of most little girls, not to grow up? Even the trailer for the upcoming “Barbie” movie knows it’s the other way around.
All that said, this movie is as forthright about bodies, desire and emotion as the current moment allows, and it has the potential to act as a primer on the facts of life for many. It looks great – well shot, the clothes are excellent, and the actors deliver what was asked of them. Ms Dunham’s choice to cast actors better known from British sitcoms was fresh, though Mr. Alwyn is coasting on his appeal and needs to shake things up quickly. When Ms Ramsey is older, she probably won’t be too embarrassed by most of her behaviour in this film, either. But the big question from “Catherine Called Birdy” is this: when will the thirty-six-year-old Lena Dunham grow up?