In the wildly successful world of HBO Dragon’s HouseMarriage is perhaps the most important institution. Not because the plotters and sadists of the Westeros prize love above all else. No, theirs was a marital union of convenience and politics, often attempts to force a young woman to be sold to the son of an aristocratic family. (Or, in the most unlikely cases, the nobleman himself.) Was there ever a softer side to this dehumanizing practice? New movie Catherine called Birdy (Amazon, October 7) for the purposes of finding out.
Writing and Directing Lena Dunham, Catherine called Birdy based on the 1994 beloved novel by Karen Cushman. In the movie, Birdy (Bella Ramsey) was the free-spirited daughter of a poor aristocratic family in medieval England. Birdy’s father, Rollo (Andrew Scott), was a profligate spender and needed some dowry to keep his fortune alive. So he began the process of marrying his daughter, who had just had her period, thus making her eligible. (Despite the fact that she is only 14 years old.)
It’s the late 1200s and nothing about Birdy’s life is very good. Everything is muddy, her mother (Billie Piper) forever lost her child in labor, and because of her gender, Birdy was denied the adventurous, itinerant life she longed for. However, Birdy prefers mud, and she has some trusted buddies to adventure with. Yes Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), a “goat boy” who likes a little messy fun. On the tidy side of things there’s Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), the daughter of a rotten old lord who was perhaps sold to more romantic ideas than Birdy, but nonetheless sympathized with her friend’s plight.
In adapting the book, Dunham focused on its humor, synthesizing some of the classics of Girls with a little Armando Iannuccipun of arches. The characters speak paradoxically, but not as much as they say, Dickinson. Shooting as freely as the movie seems, there is a careful control of the work, a restrained restraint Catherine called Birdy from mockery to malicious sarcasm. There is a deep sentiment – a humanism, really – that is at the heart of the film; Dunham liked most of her characters, and therefore treated them fairly and with dignity.
But is it a children’s movie? I suppose it depends on the child. If there’s a witty tweenager, perhaps a little early in your life, they’ll probably learn a lot from Birdy’s story. Sure, there are some light sex jokes, but nothing on a level that kid might hear at school. (And of course, movie-like fart jokes are for all ages.) Dunham has instructions in mind, too. She shifts the ending of the story away from the novel, directing it towards empowerment in a way that’s perhaps a bit inaccurate for the time period, but isn’t blinked by a contemporary perspective that we see. I completely forgot what world Birdy lived in.
It’s a delicate balance, and one that Dunham gracefully strikes. The film alternates silly and sweet, aware of the oppressiveness of what is being talked about while still giving Birdy a reason to play and dream and safely rebel. Ramsey nimbly manipulates the film’s shifting tones, imbuing Birdy with a compelling combination of her innate wisdom and unsurpassed intelligence — something we don’t want to see hidden beneath a bushel by some cruel dealings of a husband.
The person Birdy really wants is the dashing, sad-eyed uncle, George (the dashing, sad-eyed man) Joe Alwyn), a Crusader has returned home to brighten up Birdy’s tattered manor. But George first sets his eyes on Aelis, causing a rift between her and Birdy, and then moves on to a wiser older widow, Ethelfritha, playing with an adorable whisper of Sophie Okonedo. Catherine called Birdy sort of gives its hero another love interest, but dealing with her with the perfect guy isn’t really the movie’s mission. It’s also a film about self-affirmation, a good lesson for any young person (or maybe an older person) as they struggle to maintain and build their identity amidst all the pressures and demands. question of the world.
Dunham’s cast of actors seems to happily fit that goal, generously going around in ways that are accessible to children while never spoiling them. This is a fascinating new avenue for Dunham, who has so far focused on the pains and pleasures of adolescence, sometimes sublime (mostly) Girls) and other times of death (recent film Timbre) effect.
I like the more serious, patient Dunham we can imagine behind the scenes here. She has refined the edges of her youthful insight and now she is passing on a more refined package to a new generation. In keeping with Birdy’s spirit, though, Dunham does so in her own way — defiantly challenging in the face of convention, but thinking more about the small transgressions that derail the difficult journey. difficult and, yes, sometimes exciting to come of age.