Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Dean-Charles Chapman, Joe Alsworth, Isis Hainsworth, Billie Piper, Sophie Okenedo, Paul Kaye, Michael Woolfitt, Moya Brady, Archie Renaux
Writer: Lena Dunham, based on the novel by Karen Cushman
Director: Lena Dunham
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Release Date: September 23, 2022 (theatrical); October 7, 2022 (Prime Video)
CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY is a cheerful non-romcom set in 1290 England. Director Lena Dunham, who also wrote the screenplay, has adapted Karen Cushman’s award-winning YA novel into an agreeable if uneven story of a whole family’s coming of age. Catherine, called Birdy (Bella Ramsey), is the fourteen-year-old daughter of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). Lord Rollo owns a small village in Lincolnshire, where the residents seem mostly content. Catherine and oldest brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman) view each other with mutual dislike. Other brother Thomas (Archie Renaux) is an amiable monk, who suggests that Catherine keep a diary.
CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY is therefore narrated by Birdy in the form of her diary entries. Since Lord Rollo is broke, he aims to make a profitable marriage for Birdy. Birdy wants nothing to do with wedlock, especially with the awful suitors who show up seeking her hand. As Birdy is a first-rate mischief maker – we meet her covered in mud at a village cottage raising – she initially has no trouble alienating potential bridegrooms. Then comes Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye), a much older, extremely rich lord. Shaggy Beard is not put off by what he recognizes as Birdy’s playacting. So, what will happen here? Cushman’s novel solved the problem via a plausible but very convenient Deus ex machina. Dunham opts for a different approach. This raises a bunch of new questions. It’s unclear at the end whether the film means to ask, much less answer, these. Ramsey, however, is undeniable.
So memorable as young Lady Lyanna Mormont in GAME OF THRONES, Ramsey as Birdy is continually funny, forceful, genuine, and human. We believe her in every moment. Piper radiates warmth as Lady Aislinn, Kaye (also a GAME OF THRONES veteran) has a feel for Shaggy Beard’s shrewdness and the period tone, and Sophie Okenedo has impact as a widowed noblewoman. Scott is set something of an impossible task. Lord Rollo starts out as a character who might have come from Monty Python, but in the latter portions turns real. Scott is adept at both halves, but the script and direction don’t provide a bridge between the two, so the change is jarring.
The uncommented-on diverse casting is welcome. Maybe 1290 England wasn’t really as integrated as it is in CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY, but unless the story is about ethnicity, which it certainly isn’t here, there’s no reason not to do it.
CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY is enjoyable in the manner of English family films (even though Dunham is American). It doesn’t entirely hold together tonally, but between Ramsey, its energy and its overall good heart, it’s worth a watch.
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Article: Movie Review: CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY