This review originally ran in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Karen Cushman’s children’s novel “Catherine, Called Birdy” is written in the form of the diary of a 14-year-old girl living in England in 1290. Cushman was most interested in exploring the details of what it was like to live as a young girl during the Middle Ages, whereas this film adaptation of the book, which was written and directed by Lena Dunham, retains the setting but filters everything through Dunham’s very narrow modern sensibility. The result is listless, plodding and self-congratulatory.
During much of the Obama administration, you couldn’t avoid seeing or reading something about Dunham and her HBO TV series “Girls,” which was over-promoted and relentlessly picked apart online. That show was at its best when it satirized the self-absorbed behavior of its young characters on the go in New York and at its worst when it celebrated them unironically.
Dunham’s value as a writer came from the specificity of the social detail in “Girls” and the psychological insight into the uglier areas of the minds of her characters. But once “Girls” went off the air in 2017, it became inevitable that Dunham would eventually get in trouble for airing some of her own questionable thoughts and perceptions in a media landscape that drastically changed once Trump became president.
Dunham basically faded from public view for a while, at least in comparison to the non-stop coverage she got during the run of “Girls,” and now she has returned with two features, “Sharp Stick,” a modern comedy that has been poorly received, and this costume picture, which makes the limits of her sensibility stand out in very sharp relief.
As Bella Ramsey’s Birdy narrates “Catherine Called Birdy,” she is constantly introducing us to new characters, all of whom get their own would-be humorous title cards on screen, listing their merits and demerits. Birdy’s behavior is proudly and one-dimensionally obnoxious, but it doesn’t become obvious that we are supposed to love her antics until her mother Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper) tells us that Birdy is “a great deal of fun” to be around most of the time, which is unfortunately not the case.
Dunham’s writing in “Catherine Called Birdy” gets stuck in grooves where she tries to find modest humor in old-fashioned words, phrasing or ways of talking, and her actors frantically try to get laughs, which of course ensures that they don’t. The level of the humor here can be measured by a scene in which “pox” is mentioned and then there is talk that it is only a “small” pox, a toying with or teasing out of a word that should only have been fit for a tweet from Dunham on a slow day.
The visuals in “Catherine Called Birdy” are conventional in the extreme; when Birdy speaks of wanting freedom, the camera will sometimes pan to look out a window with light streaming through it. There is even a point-of-view shot from inside a fireplace, a bad idea/visual cliché that seemingly will not die even though Alfred Hitchcock mocked it in interviews over half a century ago.
The most dismaying thing about “Catherine Called Birdy” is its low spirits, its feeling of enervation in spite of all the nervous shouting and carrying on that the actors do to combat it. The acting on “Girls” was close to amateur a lot of the time, which is why a trained theater actor like Adam Driver was able to make such an impression on that show. Sophie Okonedo is the only actor here who picks the right tone for the material, and she delivers it so confidently that Ramsey’s work radically improves in the scenes that she shares with Okonedo, but Dunham allows some poor work from her players elsewhere.
Dunham paved the way for a lot of other female writers and directors who have since built on the fresh elements that she introduced in “Girls,” but all the hate she receives online seems to have finally affected her confidence. The way for Dunham to come back is to return to modern stories where her sense of social observation might find some new targets for deflation. “Catherine Called Birdy” only shows that dropping Dunham’s sensibility down into the Middle Ages results in a viewpoint that is suffocatingly small and unenlightening.
“Catherine Called Birdy” will open in U.S. theaters Friday, Sept. 23, and be released globally on Prime Video Oct. 7.