By Ken Mondschein
Though plagued with some inaccuracies, and one atrocious plot decision, Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy is a direction in which films about the Middle Ages ought to go.
Here beginneth the review of Sir Ken of Mondschein of Catherine Called Birdy. Be wary for your souls, noble reader, for there be spoilers herein.
I do confess I had high hopes for this film, for t’was produced and directed by Lena Dunham from the Newberry award-winning 1994 young adult novel by Karen Cushman, and stars Bella Ramsey of Game of Thrones and The Last of Us. Forsooth, t’was my expectation to find a raucous and funny coming-of-age story that centered on strong female characters, rather than Ye Olde Beardy Bros with Swords—more The Little Hours than The Norseman. And, despite the opening scene of children engaged in a mud fight, thy humble reviewer was not disappointed: Dunham’s work is filled with color and light. Houses are furnished with tapestries; clothes are dyed with something other than dirt; people laugh and have fun; the peasants even seem to wash on occasion. Dunham’s eye sees the medieval world as bright and sunlit; in perhaps its only parallel to The Norseman, even the scenes that take place in the dark are lit so you can see what’s going on.
Pray attend, I must clear mine throat with a medievalish exclamation. Prithee!
Dunham’s other touches are everywhere. Catherine’s father Rollo (Andrew Scott) is played as an ineffective, spendthrift man-child. Her mother (Billie Piper) is strong but pragmatic. Birdy, rather than being a proper little pre-Raphaelite lady, is a shameless ball of energy who sends away would-be suitors in hilarious manners. Ramsey is delightful to watch in the role, and Dunham’s sensibility of anything-goes and propriety-is-for-Boomers is channeled here into gleeful fart jokes that seem positively Chaucerian.
Of course, a movie is a modern thing, anachronisms are inevitable, and some of the deliberate ones (forsooth!) work well. For instance, the soundtrack includes troubadour-esque covers of contemporary pop music by British songstress Misty Miller. It’s like A Knights Tale using Queen and David Bowie, but better. In another touch of modernity, the casting is color-blind, with nary an explanation of why thirteenth-century England is so multicultural.
Nay, good readers, mine ire is raised not by these things. It is only when anachronisms, or worse, ignorance, intrudes upon good sense to poke through the plot that I wax choleric.
First, I ask you: would it be medieval young lady, surrounded by barnyard animals and in a society with little privacy, be so ignorant of her menses and of the carnal act itself? Yet be so nonplussed by her best male friend being gay? How could she have possibly been so sheltered, not having been raised in a convent?
Second: Would medieval midwives so quickly despair of delivering a baby and call in a priest? (Nay, they would not. They would crush its skull and pull the body out in pieces to save the mother.) The scene advances Lord Rollo’s character, but does naught to dispel ideas of medieval medicine as anything but barbaric. (Also, male doctors would probably have been far more incompetent than midwives.)
This, noble readers, brings us to the great sin of this movie, the historical inaccuracy at the heart of the plot: dowry is what goes with a woman into marriage. It is most manifestly not the money a man gives to a girl’s father (that would be bride-price). A scheme to save the family’s fortunes by marrying off the daughter would not work, because she would need to entice a suitor by bringing property with her into marriage.
But even that is not mine biggest plaint. Nay, gentle reader, it is this: the main conflict, Birdy’s trying to break her engagement to the horrible but hilarious Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye), is resolved not by her own contrivances, nor by the blind luck of the novel, but by her father breaking a contract, which is then resolved by a… swordfight. I don’t mind that Dunham ignores that judicial duels usually had to wend their way through the court system, rather than being resolved at the drop of a hat; it’s that, after a delightful and empowering film full of warm human relationships, Birdy’s agency is removed and she becomes a spectator, a token, whose fate is decided by… yet another badly-choreographed swordfight between men.
Nonetheless, I must salute the greater part of Catherine Called Birdy: It depicts a colorful world full of real human beings and real human relationships, where most people’s effort goes to farming, rather than fighting, and at least most problems are solved with words, not swords. I would welcome many more films like it.
Here endeth the review of Sir Ken of Mondschein, in the Year of Our Lord two-thousand and twenty-three, amen.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Ken’s latest book is On Time: A History of Western Timekeeping. Click here to visit his website. You can also fellow Ken on Twitter @DrKenMondschein.