Medieval period pieces are often pretty standard fair. For the last sixty years, little has changed in how we see the genre. Every so often though, a movie comes along which aims to revitalize the form. There are different elements and different perspectives and filmmakers are aware of this. More stories exist than the kings, the knights and the damsels of lore. This is where director Lena Dunham sees her latest film, Catherine Called Birdy. The story follows a young girl who really doesn’t want to be a lady. However, will society allow her to get over her menstrual cramps in peace?
Catherine Called Birdy follows a young girl (Bella Ramsey). She’s 14 and attempting to live her best life. The only problem? It’s the middle ages. So, while she’s playing with her friends and causing general mischief, she also lives in constant fear of the day her father (Andrew Scott) is going to want to marry her off.
So, when she gets her “lady in red”… the only thing stopping her from marriage and children is her own force of will. Billie Piper, Lesley Sharpe, Joe Alwyn and Sophie Okonedo co-star in the movie. Lena Dunham directs Catherine Called Birdy from her own script.
The last time most of us saw Bella Ramsey, she was in the midst of her star-making work as Lyanna Mormont in the final seasons of Game of Thrones. The role propelled the young performer into a meteoric rise.
She has, of course, been working at a fast pace since then. However, in this Middle Ages period piece, Ramsey essentially returns to where she began.
Catherine Called Birdy is immediately recognizable. At some level, the film feels like a Lyanna Mormont origin story. Ramsey is of course, good! She’s too good. In fact, in an industry that thrives on type-casting, the young actor might want to start mixing it up a bit.
At the heart of everything, very little separates Catherine from Lyanna. Ramsey brings the same spunky strength to this character. She’s a Disney Princess personified.
As this might imply, Ramsey isn’t given a heck of a lot to do. She’s animated, she’s independent, and she doesn’t want to be a lady, darn it. While this is certainly fun to watch, this has been seen and done before. This take on feminism has been done before. These characters, this setting and the subject matter lend themselves to some emotionality that largely isn’t tapped into.
Essentially, Dunham wants to craft Game of Thrones through a teen movie lens. She brings a contemporary swagger which does work. It also produces a number of chuckle-worthy moments. The use of music is particularly fun, especially the use of “Honey to the Bee” at a particularly savvy time. While it isn’t Billie Piper’s delightful version, it still feels like a knowing wink at the audience who might remember Piper’s music career.
However, Dunham is desperate to inject a modern flair through the humor which begins to feel old quickly. The script particularly loves fart jokes… a lot. This might work for viewers in Birdy’s demographic; however, if you’re in the adult crowd, it grows old quickly.
As mentioned, Catherine Called Birdy is crafted as a medieval teen movie. In that, the film’s focus is going to be the children. However, this choice is unfortunate in that it limits the performances of the ultra-talented adult supporting cast.
For the readers out there, who, like me, can’t get enough of British TV, there’s plenty here to love. Billie Piper, known to most thanks to her portrayal of Rose Tyler on Doctor Who steps into the role of Catherine’s mother, Lady Aislinn. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott, who some may know as Moriarty on Sherlock and others, as a particularly hot priest in Fleabag, plays her father.
Piper in particular is a breath of fresh air. As the lady of the house, we learn quickly she is where Catherine gets everything that makes her unique. She’s strong. She’s opinionated. She is unapologetically herself. However, she’s also grown up in a world where these traits are not acceptable in women. Her job is to run the house and raise the children. She is essentially a cautionary tale.
Unfortunately, it takes until very late in the film for the story to showcase the bond between Catherine and Lady Aislinn. Piper’s portrayal is beautifully heartfelt. She understands her role as the maternal figure, yet she also understands where this woman came from. And at the same time, Piper understands how this plays into Ramsey’s portrayal of Catherine. The film has lightning in a bottle when these performers are alone on-screen together. It’s just a pity it doesn’t happen more.
Similarly, it takes until deep in the third act for the film to find Lord Rollo’s (Scott) heart. For much of the story, he’s pigeonholed as Birdy’s clueless father. He’s greedy, vane and almost a caricature. His portrayal is defined by Birdy’s description of him early in act one. And like most of us, she doesn’t truly understand her parents.
With that being said though, as the story reaches its conclusion, Lord Rollo comes full circle. Scott’s moment of clarity is incredibly beautiful to see. It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there.
When all is said and done, Catherine Called Birdy tries to do a little too much. Its focus is spread too thin. It’s fun and it’s young, but it misses out on true greatness. This may be a teen movie, but at its heart, this is also a family story. There are some beautiful character dynamics at play, but unfortunately, the movie seems purely invested in building this as Birdy’s story.
Catherine Called Birdy is currently playing in theaters. The movie debuts on Amazon October 7th.
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