Catherine Called Birdy review | A medieval coming-of-age delight

Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy is warm, feminist and funny. It’s all you could hope for in a coming-of-age story.

catherine called birdy


Lena Dunham rose to fame with Girls, the TV show that was dubbed as the alternative take on the Sex and The City. It was more realistic, with a greater variety of body shapes and sizes and wasn’t afraid to show the ugly side of being a woman and having to grow up. It was also accused of being largely white and privileged. 

Dunham is clearly interested in the coming-of-age stories, but Catherine Called Birdy is a clear step away from her usual, aggressively contemporary style. Firstly, this is a period film, with the action taking place in the 1200s, and secondly, the protagonist is an actual teenager. Most of Dunham’s previous work has focused on childish adults, people who are technically capable of taking care of themselves but are just terrible at it. 

Birdy seems like an exception, a very welcome anomaly in Dunham’s roster of protagonists. Played with such playfulness by Bella Ramsey, Birdy is fiercely excitable and by all means, a child. At 14, she is more concerned with playing in the mud than she is with potential suitors. Until her period comes. 

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Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Every woman knows the day you get your first period as the day something distinctively ended while something new also began. For Birdy, it means the end of carefree childhood and the beginning of an extensive search for a husband as her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott, brilliant) seeks to marry her off to help with his debts. Birdy keeps stuffing her period rags under the floorboards of the outhouse in the hopes of keeping it a secret for a little longer, but in vain. 

Catherine Called Birdy is devilish, almost immature to begin with, with a side of sweetness. The film quickly graduates from that to forced maturity as Birdy is faced with her own future as someone’s wife. On top of that, Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn, is pregnant and it’s time to meet the baby soon enough, but pregnancies and births in particular aren’t safe for women in these times. 

Dunham handles the subject matter surprisingly well and delicately even. There is so much warmth and empathy in Catherine Called Birdy, it’s almost like a giant hug of a film. Every now and then, the film is overtaken by a strange, cynical disillusionment of love and relationship, but it’s often replaced with adolescent joy. 

Much like Dunham herself, Birdy has absolutely no sense of shame. She freely discusses otherwise taboo subjects, such as how babies are made. We also see several bloody period rags which in itself feels huge and liberating. 

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Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The film’s soundtrack is full of new versions of contemporary bangers, like Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire. It’s maybe a little on the nose, but Dunham’s style otherwise works here so well. Catherine Called Birdy might draw the inevitable Eight Grade comparisons, but there is an aura of tragedy to Dunham’s film, because it constantly reminds us of our collective past as women and what has and hasn’t changed. It also constantly shows Birdy shades of her own future, which she is terrified of and wants to actively reject. 

Catherine Called Birdy is a genuine delight, even if it’s never quite as memorable and outrageous as it sets out to be. The middle lags quite significantly and it can’t always balance the humour with the deeper stuff, but this is a very nice addition to the ever-growing list of great coming-of-age stories. 

Catherine Called Birdy is in cinemas September 23 and on Prime Video October 7

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