They say, “Write what you know.” I’ve never been all that sure. Lena Dunham has written what she knows: contemporary life among creative types, the subject of her debut film Tiny Furniture, her much-discussed TV series Girls, and her second film Sharp Stick. Those were delightful at times (except the last one, which I haven’t seen yet), but now she has brought her modern sensibility to her film version of Karen Cushman’s novel Catherine, Called Birdy, and the results are more than just crackling entertainment. This medieval comedy, which plays at Movie Tavern West 7th this weekend, proves that this filmmaker can do more than just surf the zeitgeist.
The title character (Bella Ramsey) is a 14-year-old girl in the summer of 1290, whose father (Andrew Scott) is Lord Rollo of Stonebridge, a Lincolnshire noble who has spent his family into deep financial trouble. To increase his income, he searches for a husband for Birdy, and the tomboyish only surviving daughter in the family is none too pleased at the prospect of being married off to some guy whose only qualification is his money. The story covers the next year, as Birdy acts out to drive men away.
Dunham’s only explicitly 21st-century touch is the soundtrack, which is full of bardcore covers of songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Girl on Fire.” Her feel for comedy and her rowdy energy (which follows the mercurial moods of her pre-teen protagonist) keeps this movie from feeling like a museum piece. The lord tells one suitor, “You resemble a bear that has attempted union with our local locksmith,” and when Birdy’s misbehavior chases away another prospective husband, her father screams the young man’s name, “Fulk!” In addition, we get a crash course in dealing with menstruation the 13th century way, as the old governess (Lesley Sharp) teaches Birdy how to stuff rags underneath her gown after the girl’s first period.
Underneath the hijinks, the film has serious issues on its mind. Birdy has so many siblings born dead that when her mother (Billie Piper) becomes pregnant once again, the girl turns to her dad and says, “Are you trying to kill her?” Lord Rollo acts like a dick much of the time in his insistence that Birdy’s getting married whether she wants to or not, but Dunham and Scott paint him as overwhelmed and ineffectual rather than a bad person. Birdy has plenty of reason to want to stay single: Her dashing and beloved uncle (Joe Alwyn) marries a rich widow (Sophie Okonedo) and promptly starts drinking himself into oblivion, her best friend (Isis Hainsworth) becomes betrothed to a 9-year-old boy, and the family’s 81-year-old neighbor (David Bradley) and his 25-year-old bride (Mimi Ndiweni) spend all their time hurling abuse at each other. Nobody pretends that these marriages are anything but financial transactions, and Birdy hears herself called “currency” before she’s engaged to a rich man (Paul Kaye) who spits food when he talks and grossly hits on her mother in front of everyone. Along with much else, the ending of the movie is much different from the book’s, yet the core remains the same, asking what a young girl is supposed to do if she cherishes her freedom in this hostile environment.
Ramsey (who played Lady Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones) holds down the center of this movie without straining. I could have wished for a bit more visual flair from the director, but as much as she has altered the source material, Catherine Called Birdy proves that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a successful literary adaptation. All it takes is efficient direction, good acting, and a curious mind behind the camera.
Catherine Called Birdy
Starring Bella Ramsey and Andrew Scott. Written and directed by Lena Dunham, based on Karen Cushman’s novel. Rated PG-13.