Earlier this year, a film was released following a young woman in the distant past whose family desired to marry her off for material purposes, a fate that she wished to escape. That film was The Princess, and it utterly failed in its task to offer a modern “strong woman” perspective on a tale we have been told time and time again. Fortunately, Catherine Called Birdy, a film with a loosely similar premise does a much better job at conveying the frustrations of a young woman considered little more than property in the eyes of her father or the law.
Catherine Called Birdy, based on the children’s novel by Karen Cushman, follows a year in the life of the titular Catherine (Bella Ramsey). She’s the sort of troublemaking tween girl who rolls in the mud and plays with the barn animals in a way that doesn’t befit a “lady” but is very reminiscent of what a 90s idea of an independent, unconventional girl looks like. We saw this in the prologue to Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, and we see it again here.
That, however, is where the similarities end. Catherine’s primary struggle is that despite wanting a life of travel, adventure, education, and really just a desire to be young and mischievous a little while longer with her friends. But, as the only daughter of the titled-yet-poor Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), she is destined to be given away in marriage. The prospects are old, or ugly, and in short, are not at all what a young girl would choose for herself. As an adaptation of a children’s book, which is written in a diary style, the film makes the choice to streamline Catherine’s conflict down to whom, if anyone, her parents will force her to marry. As a book, the story is more broadly focused on Catherine’s daily life and observations about her family and about coming of age. Yes, her impending marriage to “Shaggy Beard” is a part of it all, but it doesn’t really have the throughline that a movie obviously aimed at younger audiences needs.
Though the adaptation does give the story a clearer and more conventional rhythm, director Lena Dunham also makes choices that could be called questionable at best, but deeply uncomfortable at worst. The main offender, in this case, is the strange subplot surrounding Catherine and her uncle George (Joe Alwyn). As her mother’s younger, handsome brother who has been off in the Holy Land fighting alongside the king in the Crusades, George is understandably a hero to the adventure-starved Catherine. He is the archetypal knight in shining armor both in the film and in the book.
Where the film veers into the uncomfortable is the suggestion that Catherine is actually romantically interested in her uncle, rather than just in awe of him. She stares at him through dinner with hearts in her eyes. When the two of them spend time playing and roughhousing in the yard, the entire scene is set to The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Her upset and even jealousy when George declares his intention to marry is understandable, as he is the only person in the family that Catherine feels truly understands her. That in and of itself is enough reason for the audience to empathize with Catherine, without Dunham adding in a subplot right out of House of the Dragon.
The other major, questionable change comes during the ending, which differs greatly from the novel. No spoilers here but there is nothing wrong with the ending of the film in and of itself, as it is very in line with this genre of coming-of-age story. The problems arise when the audience is confronted with sudden, unearned changes in characters who up to this point have been behaving more in line with their book counterparts than with the sort of character for whom this ending feels earned. Yes, the moment itself is a feel-good one, but to consider it in the context of the scene as a whole will leave you scratching your head.
What truly saves this film from its own baffling choices and makes it watchable are the performances. Scott, Piper, and Alwyn all turn in compelling performances, but it is the titular “little bird” that steals the show. As the rebellious, headstrong Catherine, Ramsey is an infectious delight who infuses every scene she’s in with an energy that is both comedic and earnest in its bluntness. She brings a relatability to the story of a young woman coming of age and feeling as though every aspect of her life is spiraling rapidly out of her control. Catherine’s story is one many young people can see themselves in, though they may not share the exact struggle, and it is the performances that make this rise to the forefront, in spite of the questionable choices made for them by the script.