Greetings again from the darkness. Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO series, “Girls”, is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of costume dramedies set in the Middle Ages. However, for her third feature film, the writer-director has adapted Karen Cushman’s 1994 YA novel, and in doing so, has shrewdly given Bella Ramsey her first lead role.
Ms. Ramsey (played Lorna Luft in JUDY, 2019) plays Lady Catherine, aka Birdy, and is on screen almost the entire time. Birdy is a rebellious 14-year-old who is a master at skirting all responsibilities while finding/causing mischief throughout her village. Birdy is quite a spirited character, one who is properly self-absorbed for her age. The story is structured around her diary entries, and keep in mind this takes place in the year 1290. A raucous mud fight between Birdy and her friends opens the movie and sets the stage for the filmmaker’s approach to the novel – comedy trumps drama.
Birdy learns that her father (Andrew Scott) has depleted the family finances to the point where the only option is to marry off Birdy to the highest bidder. Of course, this won’t be easy, as her father describes her as “one step away from a leper”, and her brother’s description is even more graphic. One obstacle is her not-so-secret crushing on her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), and mostly we get to watch as Birdy cleverly repels/outmaneuvers each potential suitor, solidifying her lack of interest in getting married. In Medieval times, women were like bartering chips – a family asset not to squander; and soon enough, Birdy is engaged to Sir Paul Henry Murgaw (Paul Kaye, one of the film’s highlights), whom she calls “Shaggy Beard”.
Ms. Dunham mines for humor in nearly every scene, and some moments work, while others fall flat. A use of contemporary music accompanies the more modern-day wordplay used by the characters. Supporting work is provided by Billie Piper (Birdy’s consistently pregnant mother), Sophie Okonedo (another highlight as George’s new rich bride), screen vet David Bradley, and Leslie Sharp (as Birdy’s supportive and interesting nursemaid). There is even an odd cameo from Russell Brand.
Despite some of the strained comedy playing directly to the audience, it’s a treat to watch Bella Ramsey embrace the role of Birdy. The film has the feel of a coming-of-age story, but it’s mostly her father who seems to grow up … although Birdy is striving for independence and does reach a certain maturity level by the end. Filmmaker Dunham presents this as a mostly light-natured romp that gives the feeling of a movie with a much more meaningful message buried deep and left unexamined. Regardless, the best parts are really good (including Julian Day’s costumes), and the rest kind of drags out a bit.
On Prime Video beginning October 7, 2022