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Catherine Called Birdy review – YA gets medieval, with joyous results

Writer-director Lena Dunham proves a perfect fit for this very kind and very funny coming-of-age tale set in 13th century England

Though the era has generally been used for more brutal, ponderous, or rambunctiously bawdy stories, the Middle Ages could not really be a more natural fit for YA adventures. Modern teenagers and noble medieval courts share so many of the same loves (gossip, crushes, falling out with your friends) that they seem almost made for each other – just take an angsty teenage inner monologue and add some mud, swords, loose animals, and Ralph Ineson. It’s this delightful mish-mash that Lena Dunham delivers with her adaptation of Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy, a funny and lovable caper that manages to keep things light within the Dark Ages.

It’s a sharp premise, telling a teenage girl’s coming-of-age story in a time when female “coming of age” was a borderline prison sentence. It’s 1290 in England, and the girl in question here is Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), known as “Birdy” to her friends due to her pigeon collection, whose turning 14 proves to be maybe the worst thing to ever happen to her. Her charmingly feckless father Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) has spent and drunk every last bit of the family wealth, so he decides, against his more sentimental instincts, to make the prudent move of marrying Catherine off to a wealthy landowner and collecting a vital dowry.

It’s a grim and troubling premise, but Dunham keeps the spirits up throughout. Catherine is as feisty, funny, and resourceful as you’d expect from any heroine in this genre, and so she sets about scaring away every possible suitor to the exasperation of her father. It’s a mostly joyous set of schemes, and always very funny to watch unfold. Ramsey makes for a great comedic lead (between facing White Walkers in Game of Thrones and battling the fungus apocalypse next year in HBO’s The Last of Us, she’s due some fun) and Scott is just fantastic as a silly fop of a man, born a few hundred years before his time.

Dunham handles the heavier stuff with just as much spark and grace as the jolliness, Catherine’s first period and a miscarriage for her loving but resolutely realistic mum Aislinn (Billie Piper, solid but a bit underserved) discussed with frankness and care. Where the suitors are defeatable antagonists, the rest of Catherine and her fellow women’s misfortunes seem an uncomfortable but inevitable part of their life’s tapestry, so why let them take up more space than they deserve?

It's a mantra that serves Catherine Called Birdy very well, letting us get to know Catherine through her triumphs rather than her traumas as she mucks about in the nearby village with all her friends, peasants and highborns alike. Framed as Catherine’s diary, the scattershot nature of the plot is actually a strength here, giving room for lots of memorable supporting characters – Jamie Demetriou, for example, almost steals the entire film with a single off-screen line-read – though the fourth-wall breaking voiceover does feel a bit tired by this point.

After the acidic self-satire of Girls and the polarising public image she cultivated afterward, something as simple and gentle and British as Catherine Called Birdy might not have been your first guess for Dunham’s most high-profile project in half a decade, but she proves a perfect match for the material. There’s rarely a moment where she falls too far on to one side of the “spiky/tender” tightrope she’s walking and the result is an instantly iconic new YA heroine. It’s a shame that the cinema release for Catherine Called Birdy is so limited, but it’s also bound to thrill almost as much at home, packed to bursting with earnest heart and medieval swear words.

Catherine Called Birdy is released in UK cinemas on September 23 and on Prime Video on 7 October.

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