Catherine Called Birdy: a pint-sized medieval heroine spreads her wings

This 13th-century-set film from Lena Dunham adopts a similar template to other modern period comedies – a feisty female heroine, diverse casting, pop songs – but in fact runs rather deeper.

Bella Ramsey as the titular character in Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

The period drama with a distinctly modern sensibility has become a successful subgenre in recent years, from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) to Bridgerton (2020–). Lena Dunham’s 13th-century-set comedy Catherine Called Birdy, her long-gestating adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 novel, adopts a similar template to its stablemates – a feisty female heroine, diverse casting, wry comedy, the use of pop songs to underscore key narrative themes – but eventually reveals itself to be running rather deeper.

The year is 1290 and the titular protagonist is the 14-year-old daughter of Sir Rollo (a louche, scene-stealing Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), who is used to living in comfort compared to the peasants who inhabit the surrounding Lincolnshire countryside. But the family are broke, and their only option is to marry off their daughter Catherine (Bella Ramsey) for a sizeable dowry. Much to her father’s chagrin, Catherine, nicknamed Birdy, is unwilling to comply, and sets about dismantling every potential match.

Played with charm and gusto by Ramsey (who starred in Game of Thrones from 2016 to 2019), Birdy is exactly the sort of character you’d expect to appeal to writer/director Dunham, whose work, including Tiny Furniture (2010) and HBO’s hit show Girls (2012-2017), has consistently challenged patriarchal norms. From the moment we first meet Catherine, who is indulging in literal mud-slinging with the village adolescents (set to a languid version of Supergrass anthem ‘Alright’, the first of many string-heavy covers that also include Piper’s own ‘Honey to the Bee’), it’s clear she is, to paraphrase the character herself, certainly no lady.

While some of the dialogue is rather on the nose (at one point Catherine presents a bullet-point list of “things a girl cannot do”), Birdy’s fierce independence allows for some fine moments of observational comedy, such as her unashamedly female-gazey reaction to a priory full of strikingly hot monks: “I’m ever so confused about what God is getting at here.” Elsewhere, Dunham deftly explores the challenges of oncoming womanhood, the pains of first periods, first loves and first betrayals all given her knowing treatment.

But it’s in its final scenes, which differ from the novel, that Catherine Called Birdy reveals its true heart. As a twist in the narrative pushes Birdy’s conflicted father to the fore, Scott is commanding in moving exchanges with first his working wife and then his daughter, whom he comes to understand just as she is about to fly the nest. Here, the film finds particular potency in reminding us that we can all find strength in those who are willing to fight our corner.

► Catherine Called Birdy is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.