God’s thumbs! Leave it to “Girls” creator Lena Dunham to deliver what’s been missing from the field of princess movies all these years: namely, permission for young women to be themselves, regardless of what their parents or the patriarchy might think. In many ways, movies — and YA movies in particular — double as a kind of socializing tool, encouraging audiences to be independent thinkers (on their surface) while in fact giving them the keys for conformity: Follow the rules, respect your elders, marry the right guy, and you’ll be rewarded with your happily ever after, they say. But that’s not independence; that’s indoctrination.
Adapted from Karen Cushman’s 1994 novel, “Catherine Called Birdy” is a genially impertinent feature-length celebration of not always doing what you’re told. Set in 1290, at a time of infrequent baths and early-40s life expectancy, Dunham’s comedic take follows the creative schemes 14-year-Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey) devises to avoid being married off by her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), to the first scraggly beard that comes along. “Your villagers are allowed to marry where they will, but your daughter is sold like a cheese for your profit!” she scoffs in the book. Here, she’s got even more attitude, a 21st-century spirit trapped in a girl’s body.
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Now, if that premise sounds like some kind of radical rewrite of Western history — and you could be excused for assuming as much, considering empowerment fantasies like “The Princess” — rest assured, the film turns out to be no more irreverent about our past than “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a movie it quite delightfully resembles. From the opening mud fight to the heroine’s insistence that she would be much happier attending hangings — just one of the many things girls cannot do in the village of Stonebridge in the shire of Lincoln in the year 1290 — Dunham establishes straightaway that Catherine doesn’t conform.
The movie wouldn’t have worked half as well had Dunham not discovered Ramsey, a “Game of Thrones” veteran soon to be seen in HBO’s “The Last of Us.” The young actor has a face one might find in a medieval Madonna portrait and a rowdy contemporary sensibility that makes her instantly relatable. In keeping with the book’s first-person format, Catherine keeps a diary and introduces the various other characters with the wit of a budding Jane Austen — the difference being, this young scribbler has no interest in wedding bells. She blackens her teeth with soot and pretends to be soft in the head whenever a suitor calls.
As it happens, she’s not against all men. Catherine rather fancies her studly uncle George (Joe Alwyn), though he’s not very deep and has money troubles of his own. Lord Rollo seeks a “profitable union” for his daughter — that is, a dowry that will get him out of hock — and he doesn’t seem very picky about who her new lord will be. “A young girl’s master merely changes from father to husband,” the movie informs, making the point in a great many ways that in the 13th century (and arguably today), men set the rules, relying on others’ ignorance to get what they want.
Catherine is horrified when her “time of the month” first arrives, knowing this means the curse she dreads most — not marriage, but motherhood — is now possible. She’s constantly asking questions about how babies are made and what it means to be a virgin, which gives Dunham a chance to channel Judy Blume, eliminating the shame around such taboo subjects while keeping her explanations light. It’s an opportunity for parents to talk to their daughters, and the movie gives Catherine multiple mother figures: her biological one (Billie Piper) as well as indulgent nurse Morwenna (Lesley Sharp).
Back on firmer ground after disappointing lockdown indie “Sharp Stick,” Dunham isn’t much concerned with historical accuracy, using the era’s distance from today as a source of absurdist humor (in one throwaway gag, Dad spends a small fortune on a live tiger, but the poor beast doesn’t survive the journey). To bridge the gap a bit, she uses pop songs — Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” a fresh cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” — and quirky on-screen text that looks like a cross between social media and illuminated manuscripts. Older brother Edward serves as a monk, while relatively immature sibling Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman) is a source of constant teasing.
The movie doesn’t play by the usual codes of casting, bringing actors of all backgrounds together in this motley arena. The book may have seemed modern by 1992 standards, but Dunham updates it considerably, giving Catherine’s best friend Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) a progressive subplot and overhauling the ending, with vastly improved results. The novel — which devotes a great many of its pages to Catherine running away to join a monastery or fight in the crusades — had her escaping marriage to a creep at the last minute. But it did so by betrothing her to the man’s more desirable son instead, whereas Dunham manages to send a different message, one that liberates Catherine from being bartered for gold bricks while leaving the door open for love, if she so desires.
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