Review by Tatiana Miranda
Nearly thirty years post its literary release, Karen Cushman's Catherine Called Birdy has its theatrical debut thanks to Amazon Studios and director Lena Dunham. Set in medieval England, Catherine Called Birdy is the fictional account of 14-year-old Lady Catherine, who is only a lady in name and not in spirit. Often inventing curse words and longing to become a saint, Catherine is the 13th-century version of Anne Shirley, equally headstrong, ill-tempered, and loyal as the other beloved children's book character. Like many of the characters Dunham writes about, Catherine is not the most likable, but she is full of personality and, more importantly, comedy.
Alongside Bella Ramsey as Catherine is a star-studded cast including Joe Alwyn, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, and Isis Hainsworth. Due to Scott's character, Lord Rollo, and his excessive spending, Catherine has to be married off as she is his only living daughter. This, of course, is much to Catherine's dismay, so she sets to foil any of her father's plans. Between her many hijinks regarding potential suitors, Catherine also navigates some familiar teenage problems, such as starting her period and having her first kiss. These seemingly ordinary moments are paired with comedy as the setting is anything than normal since it takes place in a time likely unfamiliar to its target audience.
Although some recent adaptions that include modern problems in historical settings have seemingly gotten it wrong (e.g. Netflix's Persuasion), Catherine Called Birdy treats its historical elements with fascination and fun, not necessarily accuracy. The film also strays away from the typical portrayals of medieval England, trading the usual dull backdrops for lavish courtyards and whimsical home decor. While the costumes are nothing spectacular, each is tailored to the character and full of elements representing their priorities. This is especially apparent with Rollo's costuming, as he is often seen wearing detailed, embroidered robes and necklaces that show off his exuberant habits.
While most of the film stays true to its literary counterpart, there are several elements changed somewhat surprisingly for the better, both narratively and cinematically. Perhaps most glaring is the ending, which, without spoiling anything, is even more heartfelt and compelling than the one Cushman wrote originally. Catherine's Fleabag-style narration keeps some of the first-person narrative elements from the source material, as the novel is written in diary format. Her witty remarks and musings are paired with the usual cheesy coming-of-age tracks, which are honestly the only downside to Dunham's masterpiece.
As Dunham's passion project, Catherine Called Birdy is representative of everything her work is known for: female empowerment, family, and humor. Her voice perfectly matches the underlying themes of the novel, and they come together in a fantastic blend of the exotic and relatable.
Catherine Called Birdy is released in theaters September 23 and on Prime Video October 7.