Catherine Called Birdy features a pleasant, tuned-in script from Dunham, but the whole project is undermined by an unfortunate lack of aesthetic character.
Her short leave of absence from Hollywood seemingly deepening her desire to go further into the machine, Lena Dunham has returned to feature film directing in a big way this year, first with the recent, modestly budgeted indie Sharp Stick (released by Utopia), and now with the presumably more lavishly budgeted Catherine Called Birdy for Amazon. Surely the largest production of Dunham’s career thus far, this semi-contemporized adaptation of Karen Cushman’s much-awarded 1994 YA novel confirms the former post-mumblecore auteur/HBO mainstay as a legit studio filmmaker. This undoubtedly counts as new territory for Dunham in terms of demographic, genre, and general reach, yet Catherine Called Birdy doesn’t stray much further from the writer/director’s usual beats.
Set in England at the close of the 13th century, Dunham’s film is firmly rooted in her protagonist’s POV, the source material’s diary format approximated via snarky, Scott Pilgrim-esque on-screen text and substantial voiceover. The protagonist in question is Catherine, or alternately, Birdy (Bella Ramsey, one of a few actors borrowed from Game of Thrones), the fourteen-year-old daughter of Lord Rollo (an oafish Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). A semi-prominent family on the verge of financial ruin and social ostracization and with a new baby on the way, Rollo sees Catherine as a solution to all these woes, a valuable asset to be married off to a man of stature in exchange for a substantial dowry and more sturdy social standing. An articulate, precocious child of a pretty classic YA mold, Catherine naturally detests the idea of being traded off to a man potentially several decades her senior, and schemes to avoid this fate, yearning instead to have mud fights with the local shepherd boys and perhaps join the monastery as her brother did. Able to delay courtship for a time by hiding her menstrual blood-soaked rags from her parents, her stash is eventually discovered and she’s forced to escalate her tactics, scaring off a series of thirsty men with increasingly outlandish performances of derangement before meeting her match in a particularly grimy man referred to as “Shaggy Beard.”
Dunham’s screenplay does an admirable job establishing and taking seriously the particularly grim stakes facing Catherine, and indeed, Catherine Called Birdy’s best quality is its respect for its intended audience (presumably young women of a similar age to the title character). It’s a demo that Dunham has a natural facility communicating with, and much of the film’s messaging and themes feel in line with her Rookie Mag collabs of yore, but it’s hard to imagine Catherine Called Birdy catching on too far outside that spectrum, the proceedings heavy on YA tropes that probably felt a little fresher in ‘94. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot else latch onto here, with Dunham trading down from Sharp Stick DP Ashley Connor to streaming service cameraman Laurie Rose (Netflix’s Rebecca, Peaky Blinders), who brings a digital flatness to this colorfully scripted movie. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is populated with a number of anachronistic covers performed by Dunham’s husband Luis Feber, songs like Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and The Angels “My Boyfriend’s Back” transformed into drab indie rock for some reason; a lot of extra work for decidedly more boring results. While her writing and the performances she coaxes from her actors remain assured and worthy of an Amazon budget, her aesthetic sensibility is challenged by the scope of her project, and ultimately, unfortunately, ignored all together.
You can streaming Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy on Amazon Prime Video beginning on September 23.