Medieval England and arranged marriage would not seem up Lena Dunham’s post-“Girls” alley. But a smart, young, independent heroine most certainly is, and smart, young, and independent most certainly describes the title character in “Catherine Called Birdy.” It opens at the Kendall on Friday and starts streaming on Amazon Prime Oct. 7.
Dunham directed and wrote the screenplay, adapting Karen Cushman’s Newbery Award-winning YA novel. The novel has a comma after “Catherine.” Why doesn’t the movie? Probably the same reason that “Don’t Worry Darling,” which also opens this week, doesn’t have one. As Hollywood priorities go, punctuation purism would not seem high on the list.
This is Dunham’s fourth feature. The most recent, “Sharp Stick,” an uneven comedy about sexual mores, came out earlier this year. “Birdy” is also uneven, but it has a winning freshness and energy. You get the strong sense that everyone involved had a good time making the movie.
Perhaps going back eight centuries had a tonic effect on Dunham. True, “Birdy” is about as authentically medieval as, say, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is, even if it does have a lot of mud and dirty straw. But the authenticity Dunham is after is emotional, not historical, and that the movie has.
Fourteen-year-old Birdy (Bella Ramsey, “Game of Thrones,” speaking of medieval) is the daughter of a ne’er-do-well nobleman, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott, the priest in the second season of “Fleabag”), and his long-suffering wife, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). Rightly wary of Dad, Birdy adores Mom. She spends most of her time with a governess/nurse/sidekick, Morwenna (a fierce and funny Lesley Sharp).
Bella narrates the movie, drawing on an “account of my days” that her mother has urged her to write for one of her brothers, who’s left to join a monastery. We can safely assume he’s literate. It’s not so certain with Birdy’s other sibling, Robert. He’s like his father, only more so. In one of those casting twists that make the movies the marvel that they are, Robert is played by Dean-Charles Chapman. Chapman’s best known for “1917,” in which one of the officers the corporal he plays answers to is played by, yes, Andrew Scott.
The big excitement around the manor is the much-anticipated return from the Crusades of Birdy’s beloved Uncle George (Joe Alwyn). An even bigger excitement is unexpected, at least by Birdy: getting her first period. Above and beyond changes endocrinological and physiological, this means prospective changes matrimonial. Lord Rollo, deep in debt, aims to marry off his only daughter. Birdy demurs (that’s a euphemism). Much of the movie’s conflict and comedy come from their clash of wills.
Even if she didn’t function as de facto narrator, thanks to the journal reading, Birdy would still dominate the proceedings. Ramsey is close to a force of nature, equally skilled at conveying Birdy’s curiosity, humor, orneriness, and not-infrequent bewilderment. In other words, she’s a 14-year-old.
Dunham plainly dotes on the character, and so does the audience. In both time and setting, “Birdy” is about as far away as you can get from “Girls” and still be in Western civilization. But in spirit and thematic concerns? Not so much. Readers of the novel might be offended if the title were changed, but it could just as accurately be called “Girl.”
Two final things of note: The glorious Sophie Okonedo turns up as part of a different arranged marriage — lucky the character who gets to marry her, even if he doesn’t quite realize it (men really can be such dunces) — and the closing credits combine animation with illuminated manuscripts in a larky, imaginative fashion that reflects “Birdy” at its best.
CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY
Written and directed by Lena Dunham; adapted from the novel by Karen Cushman. Starring Bella Ramsey, Lesley Sharp, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo, Dean-Charles Chapman, Isis Hainsworth. At Kendall Square; starts streaming on Amazon Prime Oct. 7. 108 minutes, PG-13 (some suggestive material, thematic elements)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.