The year is 1290 in Lincolnshire and 14-year-old Birdy, aka Lady Catherine (Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey), a plucky tomboy with no interest in marriage, is entering adolescence, complete with embarrassingly large period rags and a father obsessed with marrying her off.
Lena Denham’s third directorial feature is an adaptation of the award-winning 1994 young adult (YA) novel by Karen Cushman and it takes a bit of getting used to.
Sure, we’re all well-versed in anachronistic historical dramas now (thank you, Bridgerton) and Catherine Called Birdy deploys many of the touchstones we’re now familiar with to illustrate how not so different the fallen medieval nobility is from us – some girlboss feminism (“Women are people too!”), a colour-blind cast and, of course, a soundscape drenched in pop music, from Supergrass covers to Alicia Keys.
But Catherine Called Birdy also has an off-kilter, purposefully contrived tone that verges somewhere between Monty Python and Wes Anderson without the mellow colour palette. It has a sort of wink-wink effect that can be distancing, until you settle in, and it took about a third of the film for me to do so.
Once you are in the swing of things, though, this is an enjoyable romp, with a terrific script and nearly as many moments of tear-jerking despair as high comedy.
Birdy’s father Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott, on terrific form), is an effete nobleman with a penchant for deep-V shirts and bohemian dressing gowns. A man of his time despite sartorial choices, he is in dire straits over how to keep the crumbling manor house and becomes intent on marrying off Birdy to pay for its upkeep, viciously beating her palms when she disobeys him.
Birdy, who much prefers to wallow in mud with her peasant friends, or laugh inelegantly about bad recorder playing, finds imaginative ways to rebuff the ridiculous suitors who arrive, from advising Russell Brand’s horseback rider that “Lady Catherine” is hideously ugly, to crouching on the high table at dinner and snorting like a pig.
A suitor is chosen, however – the repugnant “Shaggy Beard” – and this makes the point better than all the avant-garde feminist mantras: feudal England simply isn’t a good time to be a girl.
Ramsey shows off her comedy chops as the stubborn Birdy, but really this is an ensemble piece. Scott veers brilliantly between flustered, draconian and affectionate; Billie Piper is as likeable as ever as his loving but realistic wife, picking herself up after yet another stillbirth; and Joe Alwyn is perfectly dreamy as the handsome Uncle George, on whom Birdy ill-advisedly pins her hopes of rescue, and who marries an older widow, played by a luminous Sophie Okonedo.
Birdy also has a couple of very funny brothers: mean Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman) and affable monk Edward (Archie Renaux), whose advice that Birdy write a diary forms the basis of her cheeky, insightful voiceovers.
If Dunham goes a little too hard occasionally on the “you go girl” mantras, she also instinctively knows how to let a joke land and give space to moment of poignancy. Amid the gags about setting the privy on fire, there is also the very real possibility that Birdy will have to marry a disgusting and brutal old man to save her family’s fortunes, and that is not funny at all. The stakes here feel higher and far less sexy than something like Bridgerton, and it’s more sincere as a result, despite all the wisecracks.
In cinemas now and on Prime Video from 7 October