Amazon Prime’s latest film release is Catherine Called Birdy, an adaptation of a well-loved children’s book which follows a young girl in Medieval England. Lena Dunham is the director and the writer of the film’s screenplay, a factor which honestly did make me hesitant to watch this film. Dunham is a controversial figure in pop culture dividing people both over her works, political statements, and personal life choices. Many consider her to be a “white feminist”, so going into a film set in Medieval England I was concerned about over-representation in the movie. Yet, I do think it is important when watching certain films to realise that it is not just the director or the screenplay – there is much more to it than that.
All this aside, this film is thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. I feel like this achieved what many films being released in the wake of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma are trying to do. The balance between modern language, ideals and the historical setting is incredibly hard to portray successfully. Wilde’s Emma did this so perfectly that so many films are trying to get this comedic dual setting across, and the standard is too high. Most recently Netflix’s latest Persuasion adaptation trended for all the wrong reasons.
But this film achieves this balance perfectly, the use of modern language and the occasional modern idea does not feel out of place. The representation of gender ideals feels fresh and not like a tick box criteria to ensure the film is diverse or relatable enough for today’s audiences.
These nuances were delivered through the acting performances. Our titular character Birdy (Bella Ramsey) is simultaneously intriguing and frustrating in her plight to prevent her marriage. Her eventual acceptance of her position in her family and society as a young woman is endearing and does not feel like a forced eureka moment.
Andrew Scott’s performance as Birdy’s father Rollo is also a highlight of the film. The depiction of gender generally feels refreshing but particularly its engagement with masculinity. Rollo is the head of the household and Lord of the manor, typically in Medieval and historical works, he would be strong and hyper-masculine. Instead, Rollo is sensitive, artistic, and very much in love and support of his wife. In the climax of the film, he discards his need for the money from his daughter’s dowry and has a dual with her fiancé to bring her home. He is established as a terrible swordsman and has no interest in “male” activities, so this act is both heart-warming character development as well as subverting gender expectations.
Overall, although this film is slow-paced at the beginning, the performances from its star-studded cast of British actors subvert the cliched modern and historical comedy film that is becoming oversubscribed in recent times. It is well worth the watch and surprisingly thoughtful in its engagement with gender.