To flip through the pages of a 13th century manuscript, one might believe the medieval era was beleaguered by more snaky dragons and man-murdering bunnies than temperamental tween girls. Young women’s stories weren’t recorded — certainly not in their own hand, as literacy was low and paper costs were high — an absence that has prodded later generations to imagine the adolescent of the Middle Ages as demure and obedient, neither seen nor heard. Here comes “Catherine Called Birdy,” a headstrong comedy written for the screen and directed by Lena Dunham, to fill in that silence with a shriek.
Birdy, played with zest by Bella Ramsey, storms into the frame baring her teeth and flinging mud pies. The 14-year-old daughter of a broke lord (Andrew Scott) and his oft-bedridden wife (Billie Piper), Birdy is mercurial, mulish and emphatically irritated by nearly everyone and everything in her shire. She logs her grievances in her diary, which riffs from Karen Kushman’s 1994 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel. The film drops Kushman’s unromantic runner about pestilence (“Picked off 29 fleas today,” her Birdy writes) to focus on the girl’s passion for inventing curses (“Corpus bones!”) and her campaign to scuttle her father’s intention to save his estate by marrying his only surviving daughter to a flatulent creep she dubs Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye).
Husbands, as seen here, are either too old (81!), too young (9!) or too selfish, in the case of Scott’s repugnantly weak Lord Rollo, who wasted the family money importing tigers and silken robes he wears open-chested with beads, as if presaging Lord Byron’s fashion sense six centuries sooner. No wonder the girl would prefer to suffer a saint’s gruesome tortures than live on as one more forsaken wife.
Dunham sets out to make life in 1290 feel as vibrant as if Birdy was rocking the glitter eye shadow of “Euphoria” instead of drawstring underpants. Occasionally, the movie overplays its bid for modern relevance — it’s dubious that a medieval teen would be able to come out as gay with just a knowing look — and the soundtrack’s twee covers of girl power anthems are a warble too far. (No need to perform Elastica’s “Connection” on what sounds like a lute.) But Dunham prevails in convincing audiences that coming-of-age in a so-called simpler time was equally tumultuous, and crams the corners of her movie with images of other female characters discreetly seizing their own moments of satisfaction — glimpses of joys which realize that it’s in the margins of a medieval tale where the best stuff happens.
Catherine Called Birdy
Rated PG-13 for adult innuendo. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. In theaters.