Catherine Called Birdy is a Newbury Medal-winning YA novel by Karen Cushman originally published in 1994, but it’s clear that Lena Dunham, writer and director of this movie version coming to Prime Video October 7th, understands how this story will be received in its 2022: as a sort of light comedy version of Game Of Thrones aimed at tween girls. Nobles plot, patriarchs preserve their glory, adults marry children, and many generally chafe at their positions, but for the most part, people are basically nice and no one gets their skull squashed gruesomely. It’s… kind of nice?
It feels slightly out of character for the Girls creator, whose show arguably started the ass-eating trend on premium television (for which The Staircase, White Lotus, and a handful of others owe a debt of gratitude) to do the wholesome version of anything, but Catherine Called Birdy does seem to suit Dunham in other ways. The title character, for instance, is a bratty rich girl.
Bella Ramsay, who Dunham presumably noticed during Ramsay’s turn as pre-pubescent boss bitch Lyanna Mormont on Game Of Thrones, plays Catherine, the 14-year-old daughter of Lord Rollo of Stonebridge. The big conflicts are that Rollo (played by Andrew Scott, aka The Hot Priest from Fleabag) has a noble name and position, but is short on fundage. Meanwhile, his wife, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper) keeps having stillbirths — all pretty typical aristocratic family drama for 1290. The rub is that Rollo needs to cash in the one asset he still has: a daughter of marriagable age with a noble name, in order to keep the family in silks and partridges.
Only Birdy, as you might’ve guessed, has no interest in fancy dresses, acting demure, or being a lady, let alone becoming the sex slave of some gross old rich man. In fact, Birdy is pretty naive where sex is concerned, understanding neither how babies are made nor the meaning of “virgin.”
Birdy is spoiled, melodramatic, needlessly bratty, and wildly privileged for her time, and yet, you kind of have to admit she kind of has a point with the whole not-wanting-to-be-a-glorified-underage-concubine thing. It’s a natural lane for Dunham, whose saving grace (as an artist, if not as a persona) has always been her ability to lean into whatever her harshest critics say about her. Girls deftly skewered entitled 20-somethings in New York, even if lots of people didn’t seem to understand that Hannah was a deliberate and knowing self-parody, not Dunham’s id.
Birdy doesn’t offer quite the same opportunity for self-critique, but Dunham at least seems to understand the character, allowing Birdy to be believably grating but in partly relatable ways, and not entirely repellent. Admittedly, I might have turned off Catherine Called Birdy in the first two minutes had I not been reviewing it, during Birdy’s over-the-top act-out of what she just heard about how babies are made (something involving a red-hot poker and seeds up the nose). Child actors are “a lot” in general, and child actors acting out what “a lot” looks like are even more than that. Luckily I soon came to understand that Birdy was just meant to be acting obnoxiously melodramatic in this first scene, and this wasn’t her baseline.
Acting, in fact, is most of what makes Catherine Called Birdy work, which it does, if just so. It kept me just interested enough to enjoy the genuinely great one-liners it drops every 10 minutes or so — like Birdy, surveying the relatively paltry Christmas banquet spread and lamenting, “When I was young, my father had a golden Jesus who pissed wine.”
Dunham’s sense of humor has a decidedly blue streak (I’d bet my paycheck that that line about the pissing Jesus wasn’t in the book) which some will surely declare unsuitable for YA audiences, but for me is much of what makes Catherine Called Birdy tolerable. I have stepchild approaching tween age and I can confidently say that I’d much rather he watch something with subversive humor and the occasional naughty word than the weirdly sanitized PG porn of “wholesome” programming from Nickelodeon, supposedly aimed at his demo. (I will drink poison if forced to watch more than five minutes of Henry Danger).
The kids on those shows all look like future fashion models, styled within an inch of their lives, wearing four layers of brand new clothes at all times, with giant mops of hair drenched in product and piled high in overwrought coifs. Birdy by contrast looks genuinely like an adolescent, shiny-faced and fairly horrified by the usual degradations of adulthood (as well as the particular ones of life in 1290).
This doesn’t make Catherine Called Birdy watchable in and of itself, it’s more the enjoyable performances from just-recognizable character actors, from Hot Priest’s winning, nuanced turn as Birdy’s father to Ralph Ineson from The Witch, to Walder Frey from Game Of Thrones (memorable face-haver David Bradley), to Birdy’s Scottish attendant Morwenna (Leslie Sharp), to the rich widow (Sophie Okonedo) who marries Birdy’s young uncle and becomes her unlikely mentor.
In her ongoing objective to gross out each successive suitor, Birdy finally meets her match in the person of Sir John Henry Murgaw, aka Shaggy Beard, played brilliantly by Paul Kaye (the Red Priest from Game of Thrones) who seems to be her only competition in grossness. Shaggy Beard is arguably the film’s most interesting character, a slovenly germophobe who wants to marry a child, yet genuinely seems to respect her anarchic spirit and general independence. Normalizing child marriage turns out to be a bridge too far even for Dunham, and timidity towards this taboo keeps Catherine Called Birdy from deepening the relationship between this unlikely pair (possibly for the best morally, if not artistically).
In the end, Catherine Called Birdy is content to be a sweet-natured, mildly entertaining extended Medieval sitcom. Which, like a teenager, is maybe not such a bad thing to be in the end.