Saturday, October 01, 2022


Lena Dunham's adaptation of Karen Cushman's apparently famous Young Adult novel is an absolute delight - but more than that - it's a film that is also profound and moving. It stars Bella Ramsay (Lyanna Mormont in GAME OF THRONES) as an early medieval tomboyish teenage girl whose impecunious aristocratic father has to marry her off to save his manor. We discover the constraints upon medieval girls through her naive but steadfast eyes. She is as fierce and captivating on screen as she was in GOT and shows real range - from physical comedy to high drama. 

But the real brilliance of this film is in the quartet of adults Dunham/Cushman surround Birdy with. Her father, Lord Rollo (a deliciously debauched Andrew Scott) could easily be the villain of the piece, given that he's effectively pissed away the family fortune, keeps knocking up his wife despite the risks to her health, and beats Birdy whenever she frightens away another suitor. But in writer-director Lena Dunham's hands, and thanks to an incredibly nuanced performance from Scott, Lord Rollo is actually a literally pathetic character - who knows full well the sacrifice he is asking his daughter to make, but sees no other way out. 

We get a similarly fascinating performance from Billie Piper as Birdy's "mumma" - a serially pregnant lady of the manor, with little actual power beyond endurance. She envies Birdy's spirit, which has not yet been broken, but sees no real out for her. We also see the possibilities within an arranged marriage - something that as an Asian I appreciated. Because while there is no doubt that Rollo married his wife for her title and money, there's also no doubt that he's desperately in love with her, and their children. Even if Birdy drives him nuts.

Similarly, the absurdly over-cast Sophie Okonedo (last time I saw her she was playing Cleopatra opposite Ralph Fiennes at the National for pity's sake) is joyously enjoyable as the glamorous, rich widow Ethelfrisa, but even she has to play the game within its rules, and yearns to run away. At first, we are seduced into the idea that at least SHE is picking her own spouse, and frankly, is objectifying him. But the reality is more complex. 

And then we have her spouse, Uncle George, played by Joe Alwyn aka Mr Taylor Swift - a man as his character used to being overshadowed by a brilliant, richer woman? His character is a meta investigation of the hero-knight teenage dream, clearly suffering from his experience in the Crusades, burdened with the unhealthy hero-worshipping of his niece, and in a marriage of convenience of his own.

Beyond the superb writing and acting, this film is extremely well put together, from its use of period locations, its character-propelling costumes, to a quite wonderful score from Carter Burwell that mixes haunting, otherworldly madrigals and recast modern pop tunes. If I were to have one criticism its that I found it perhaps around 20 minutes too long - a touch saggy in its middle sections before we continue on our plot-driven quest for Birdy's husband.

CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 108 minutes. The film played Toronto 2022 and is on release on streaming services.

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