You are going to fall in love with Bella Ramsey.
Lena Dunham has always been interested in growing up and the bridge between the joys of being a kid and the potential dregs of adulthood. We’ve seen that in Girls and her other directorial effort this year, the underseen Sharp Stick. Catherine Called Birdy, however, feels different. It’s not just because it’s a medieval period piece, but we get a firmer sense of Dunham’s passion to tell this story. Catherine is bubbly and merry but it carries important messages of gender disparity.
In the first few moments of Catherine, we get a strong sense of her impulsiveness and how she disregards the rules. The first time we see her, she is covered in mud from a fight with other young teens, and she informs her father that she released the family’s pigs. “I’m not ashamed. I will not let animals live in captivity like me,” she says, without batting an eye. Her father, Lord Rollo (“often vain, usually drunk”), is played by the dashing and charming Andrew Scott. Between the casting of Scott and Joe Alwyn in Catherine and Jon Bernthal in Stick, Dunham is giving us an abundance of mancandy.
In order for the family to keep their heads above water financially, Catherine’s father has decided to allow suitors come calling. Catherine is only 14 years old, so she fends them off as long as she can, but it raises questions of how young women have no prospects or say in their own future. Catherine can’t marry for love, be there for her mother (hello Billie Piper!), or attend a hanging in town like her brothers. Watching Ramsey rebel is marvelously entertaining.
Dunham could’ve made Catherine period accurate with its dialogue and music supervision, but the film plays so much better by modernizing these aspects to connect the present to the past. Not to compare it to another work, but if you liked Apple TV’s Dickinson, you will love Catherine Called Birdy. Carter Burwell’s score features fantastic vocal flourishes, and Julian Day’s costumes are some of the best of the year.
At the center is Bella Ramsey as the title character. She exudes such a joyful and natural presence on screen that it never feels calculated or labored. Catherine’s pluck and puckishness shine through the bullshit a young woman of her time period has to endure.
Catherine Called Birdy is available in theaters on September 23 and on Prime Video on October 7.