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TIFF 2022: “Catherine Called Birdy”: Lena Dunham’s Comedy – Funny and Relevant

Catherine Called Birdy is director Lena Dunham’s comedy about just turned thirteen-year-old Catherine (Bella Ramsey), who becomes available for marriage with the arrival of her menstrual period, to any prosperous suitor her father chooses – most of them old and undesirable – in order to rescue her family’s dire economic position, brought about by her father’s poor management of the household finances. The film amusingly documents Catherine’s willful attempts to escape the role to which she has been assigned.

At the premiere at TIFF, Dunham described how she came upon the irrepressible character of Catherine Called Birdy, which is also the title of the book upon which the film is based, although the book and film diverge in important ways. The book has won the Newbery Honor and Golden Kite Award and is written by Karen Cushman.

The Golden Globe winner for Best Actress – TV Series, Comedy or Musical for Girls in 2013, explains her attraction to the source material. “My journey with Birdy?” Ms. Dunham began from the stage at TIFF before the first showing of the Amazon Prime film. “Well, she’s been a voice in my head since I was 10, and it’s been the good kind of voice. Like all great books, the one this film is based on was both an escape and a ‘comfort’ object for me. It was a way out and a way in.

“From the moment I met Birdy, on the New Release paperback shelf at the Barnes & Noble in New York in 1996, she represented both what I felt like as an odd, and – I say this objectively – relatively friendless child, and also who I wanted to be.”

Ms. Dunham went on to reflect on how Catherine is all of us. “She is anxious but not scared. She is melancholy but not sad. And most of all, she is brave. Like every young woman having to grow up in a world that is demanding things she doesn’t want to give, she has to fight to be seen as who she is, and sometimes she has to fight to be seen at all.”


The comedy focuses on the universal themes of women as chattel, and the power men have to decide females’ fate. The bumping soundtrack is created by Lena’s husband, Luis Felber.

Fans of Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) will recognize the similar figure of a self-empowered heroine who chafes at her ordained status and invents ways to circumvent life’s decree of female power – or rather, lack of it.


As Birdy goes about thwarting her suitors, serious topics emerge in the script. Dunham told The Hollywood Reporter that she turned to historical consultant Helen Caster to confirm the accuracy of her portrayal to the topics raised: The focus on the fetus at the cost of the mother. The acceptance of a husband’s ownership of his wife, including his right to abuse her. “Helen Caster, who knows so much specifically about women in the domestic sphere at that point. She would go through the script,” notes Dunham, “and flag anything that didn’t feel like it was appropriate.”

With all the restrictions that women have endured, men too have been boxed in by societal expectations. Some of those confines are examined in Catherine Called Birdy through the character of Birdy’s father. Dunham explained to The Hollywood Reporter: “The father doesn’t have to be a brute. The same way that Birdy was stuck in her moment in history and she can’t bust out of it, he’s stuck in this thing that we’ve now coined ‘toxic masculinity,’ but let’s just say what he thinks is his duty.”

Andrew Scott, who gained the controversial title of “the hot priest” during his stint on the TV series Fleabag, explains his character as Catherine’s father, who is doing all the things a head of household should be doing in the Middle Ages but is also in pain at having to do them.


“This is a character that I think is more interesting (than your usual antagonist),” notes Scott. “He suffers from having to be macho. There are actually lots of different types of men and so I tried (to imbue this character with some of those aspects.)”

Don’t Worry Darling, L’immensità, La syndicaliste, along with countless other films at the Venice Film Festival and TIFF, explore the restrictions suffered and the damage to the lives of people who do not fit society’s demands of conformity. It was these themes explored in the best-selling book Catherine Called Birdy that stoked Lena Dunham’s interest to direct this film.

Bella Ramsey plays the part of Catherine Called Birdy: she is supported in her life-affirming adventures by Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn and Sophie Okonedo – and look for a hilarious cameo by Russell Brand along the way.