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21 September 2022

Catherine Called Birdy: The secret diary of a medieval teen

Lena Dunham’s new feature is a coming-of-age romp set in 1290. But it’s less of a departure from Girls than you’d think.

By David Sexton

She was so young, Lena Dunham, back then. She made her breakthrough feature, 2010’s Tiny Furniture, at the age of 23. She wrote, directed and starred in this story all about herself and her confusion over what to do with her life as an adult, temping in a restaurant, cheerlessly screwing its sous-chef in a roll of metal on a building site.

Shot in the family home, her mother and sibling playing themselves as well, it cost just $65,000, and won her a blind script deal at HBO. Girls, effectively turning Tiny Furniture into a series, was commissioned in 2011 and premiered in 2012, rapidly winning critical acclaim, multiple Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe awards. That year Dunham signed a $3.5m book contract: Not That Kind of Girl emerged in 2014.

For exposing the awkward, sticky reality of girls’ lives – the bad temper and the bad sex, with herself at the centre of it all – the adulation Dunham enjoyed was extreme. Caitlin Moran interviewed her in 2012 just before Girls began screening in the UK and proclaimed: “To a generation of girls, she is the thing. The very thing. The absolute thing.” Girls ran for six series altogether, 62 episodes, concluding in 2017. Dunham, however, was attacked for the show’s privileged all-white cast, despite its diverse New York City setting. Her response was to insist that Girls was about her own world and that’s how it was, the show is “super-specific to my experience”.

[See also: David Cronenberg, master of body horror, returns with Crimes of the Future]

Dunham’s career since has not flowed, not helped by her tendency to shoot her mouth off. Her follow-up comedy, Camping, was critically slated and cancelled after the first series. Her personal life has also been difficult. In 2018 she wrote in Vogue about having a hysterectomy at the age of 31, due to endometriosis.

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Dunham has two feature films out this year, her first since Tiny Furniture 12 years ago. Sharp Stick, out in the US but not here yet, has been savagely reviewed. And now here’s Catherine Called Birdy, a romp that won rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It’s an adaptation of a 1994 novel for young adults by the American academic Karen Cushman; a medieval coming-of-age story, presented through the diary of 14-year-old Catherine, called Birdy, living in a manor in Lincolnshire in 1290. Birdy’s impoverished father, Lord Rollo, wants to marry her off to whichever suitor will pay the most. Proto-feminist Birdy, repulsed by these oafs and the very idea of sex as she understands it, resists brilliantly, making herself wildly unattractive to these gargoyles, singing out of tune, crying, seeming mad.

Dunham herself does not appear this time. Birdy is played with vim by Bella Ramsey (Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones), her curious moon face serving her well as a misfit in the family home. Andrew Scott (Fleabag’s Hot Priest) is her father, a straightforward brute in the book but here fetching and modern – throughout, the film gleefully profits from putting contemporary characters into archaic, backward situations. Billie Piper is her glamorous, sympathetic mother, Lady Aislinn, tormented by constant pregnancies and still-births; Sophie Okonedo is her savvy, financially independent Aunt Ethelfritha, married to her hunky Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), whom Birdy has a girlish crush on.

[See also: The Forgiven is a tough and unrelenting film noir]

The secondary casting is impressively diverse, with Dunham acknowledging the “conversations that came up around Girls” and piously testifying that “there’s been diversity always”. Key moments are underlined with pop anthems, the costumes and bedspreads are anachronistically sumptuous, a bit Comme des Garçons, a bit Sixties California. Birdy’s best friend, the loyal goat herder Perkin, has been made gay, religion has been relegated, and the ending is also more open-ended and fulfilling for Birdy than in the book.

Not so Girls then, this cheerful travesty? Totally Girls, actually. Dunham has loved the book since she was ten and first optioned it way back in 2011, always intending to make this adaptation, saying, “It was Birdy’s essential paradox that I leaned in to at ten – her home is impossibly cozy yet weighs her down with expectations she doesn’t want to fulfil.”

The key inspirational line Dunham has written into the script is delivered by Birdy’s sympathetic priest brother: “Knowing your own story shall be your salvation.” Catherine Called Birdy is indeed Dunham’s story, as much as anything she has made, a successful reversion. It may be overtly a YA movie – but then what else was Girls ever but young adult?

“Catherine Called Birdy” is in cinemas now and on Amazon Prime from 7 October

[See also: Antonio Banderas and the art of self-parody]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke