Catherine Called Birdy Review: Offers everything best about the coming-of-age genre
Brilliant writing and humour help in showcasing our titular character's crumbling worldview and the film pulls it off without making anyone outright evil
Stories set in the medieval era are often plagued by war-mongering kings, adventurous knights, fearsome dragons, and literal plagues. Seldom do we ponder upon the inner monologue of a 14-year-old girl living her life in a medieval household. And we briefly wonder, as Amazon Prime Video's latest film, Catherine Called Birdy, starts unravelling, about why a coming-of-age story had to be told through the lens of a genre as under-explored as medieval comedy. Apart from the obvious quirks and tonal distinctiveness offered by the sub-genre, the period setting enables us to understand that certain emotions, and certain philosophical ponderings, are timeless. Perhaps the power of storytelling lies not in taking us away from our present reality but in enabling us to relate and empathise with people living in 13th-century England. What begins as a coming-of-age story drifts away in the middle and hits you hard with existential questions about adulthood and the stagnant numbness that adults have resigned themselves to, in the pursuit of maturity and growing up.
Director: Lena Dunham
Cast: Bella Ramsey, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
We remain cosily tied to a 14-year-old girl's vision of the world throughout the story; conflict arises when her father, a broke lord, attempts to save his estate by reluctantly trying to marry her off to a wealthy suitor. Bella Ramsey, who plays the role of Birdy (Catherine) offers a performance deftly packed with confidence and ease that easily outshines many of her older co-stars. Birdy rebels against every change, every responsibility, every nudge to grow up, that the world throws toward her. The humour helps us digest her stubborn, rebellious nature without being annoyed by her brattish behaviour. It's refreshing how the artwork stays loyal to the time period and how the camera work and lighting do not obnoxiously try to punch up and force-feed the light-hearted nature of the story.
Despite her numerous successful attempts to repel every wealthy suitor that visits her house, Birdy is finally betrothed to a much older, grubby, drunk lord. She then runs away to her uncle George’s house, whom she considers a hero, her knight in shining armour. She confronts him about not coming to save her from the impending marriage, to which he replies, “Heroes only exist in story books.” The poignant exchange that follows, between the two characters, marks a philosophical low for Birdy. There are several such moments where Birdy confronts an adult in her life and questions their choices, only to receive lessons about how reality broke them into submission. We feel Birdy’s disappointment as she understands the nature of the world and how things work. The writing skillfully navigates through Birdy’s crumbling worldview without making anyone outright evil or torturing our protagonist.
The wholesome heart of the story exudes much of its warmth in the latter half of the film when Birdy reclaims her faith in heroes while also learning to grow up in her own way. Catherine called Birdy wins by making us wish we could spend more time with the characters. Every character, from her parents to her nurse Morwenna, to her friends Aelis and the shepherd boy Perkin, to the old widow her uncle George married to, are all written with depth and empathy towards their own plight. There are times when the narrative is muddied by an overload of themes, the film has so much to say, and it does so with style, humour, and finesse but it becomes overwhelming at times.
The effervescent charm of adolescence to rebel against change, is put on a glorious unadulterated display in Catherine Called Birdy. Medieval comedy is a severely underrated and under-explored genre, and to use that as a device to explore a coming-of-age tale, with all its familiar tropes, requires inventiveness in style and a profound understanding of the characters and the themes they reflect, writer-director Lena Dunham seems to have succeeded in that endeavour.