Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Catherine Called Birdy reviews #TIFF22

Queens of the Qing Dynasty | Written and Directed by Ashley McKenzie | 122 min  

McKenzie, while still fond of the small visual details of characters’ bodies, broadens her storytelling palate on Queens with a dose of dryly absurd humour. It’s the story of teenaged Starlet, or “Star” (Sarah Walker), in a hospital ward following a suicide attempt. She’s assigned Ziyin Zheng’s An, a student volunteer who looks in on her. That’s the key relationship, between the caregiver and the caregiven, and as the film goes on their connection becomes something warm and deep. They explore commonalities over texts and stories of Chinese myth, trans narratives, the immigrant experience, and being unmoored from the ordinary.

And while it’s not as stark a vision as McKenzie’s feature debut, Werewolf, we do have uncomfortably intimate access to Star’s treatment program (and esophagus) at the hospital. It’s a place without windows, with the added claustrophobia of it all being shot in the Academy ratio. The emotions are different than Werewolf, but the takeaway is similar — McKenzie’s is a cinematic voice exploring her range, hitting notes we haven’t heard before.

Catherine Called Birdy | Directed by Lena Dunham | Written by Dunham, adapting the novel by Karen Cushman | 108 min 

I devoured the HBO series Girls, and so was pleased to see creator and star Lena Dunham return with this somewhat unlikely project — a coming-of-age comedy set in 13th Century England. What Dunham did well with Girls — share the intimate life and attitudes of modern, young women — is an approach she applies here with a lot of success to a character from a YA novel set 600 years ago.

Birdy (black-eyed Bella Ramsey, who appeared briefly but potently as Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones) is more-or-less a princess. She’s 14-years-old and just getting her period, which she tries to hide from her mother and father (Billie Piper and the wonderful Andrew Scott) because she knows she’ll be married off to the next wealthy bachelor who rides up the hill — her family needs the money. However, that isn’t her concern.

Ramsey is a total delight as Birdy, a star-making role that reminds me of Millie Bobby Brown, with her to-the-point voice-over detailing all her teenaged interests — mostly prioritizing having fun, with some concern over a favourite uncle (Joe Alwyn), a new aunt (Sophie Okonedo), a best friend (Isis Hainsworth), and a good chum (Michael Woolfitt). This while the suitors circle (including Russell Brand and another Game of Thrones veteran, Paul Kaye) and she and her father rage at each other over their competing interests.

Dunham’s gift with character, despite the time frame, shines through. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being able to relate to Birdy’s anxieties and lack of freedom around a fate to be joined to a much older men, even as she’s also an entirely entitled and selfish teen. Hilarious to a fault, Catherine Called Birdy will drop on Amazon Prime in October. If you subscribe to said service, don’t miss it.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.