The brittle humour of Girls meets the brutal themes of Game Of Thrones in Lena Dunham’s adaptation of this flinty coming-of-age novel. Set in a close-knit village during a time where women are traded for money and marriage, the film follows Bella Ramsey’s wayward teen as she navigates the myriad issues that sprout from adolescence. Some have been framed to strike a chord with modern young women: crushes, turbulent friendships and teen jealousy. Others contemplate the overbearing oppression women faced in medieval England; Catherine’s marriage, for one (she conceals her period-stained sheets under floorboards to hide her new childbearing potential), and another gruelling storyline involving her mother (Billie Piper) and her mounting number of miscarriages.
Dunham, best known for creating the aforementioned joyous, self-deprecating HBO show Girls, and who returns to feature directing for the first time since 2010’s wry indie comedy Tiny Furniture, adroitly balances Judy Bloom-style coming-of-age musings with the endless suffering endured by women of the era. In one scene, Catherine hankers over a flock of local boys; in another, she delivers to camera a list of things forbidden to women while her father (Andrew Scott) thrashes a stick down on her bare arm. Even in the family unit, Dunham is able to summon nuance. Scott, while playing a roguish, greedy lord who has squandered their finances on decadence, is undeniably impish and magnetic, while Piper’s dry delivery is matched by boundless charm. Each master the beats of Dunham’s comedy writing effortlessly.
However, the film falters in its inability to resist forced feminist flourishes. Slogan-style sentiments — along with breathy pop covers and the repeated Fleabag-style, fourth wall-smashing monologues — are clumsily shoehorned into a film that would’ve easily been carried on the strength of its performances and source material. Yet even with these overstretching attempts to make the film more accessible, Catherine Called Birdy endures as a solid showcase for Dunham as a filmmaker capable of leaving her Girls legacy firmly in the past.