Directed by Lena Dunham | Written by Dunham, adapting the novel by Karen Cushman | 108 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Amazon Prime
A version of this review appeared on the blog when I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
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. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Birdy growing up to be a little like Hannah or Jessa and, accordingly, entirely unhappy with her lot despite her privileges.
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 really what’s on her mind.
Ramsey is a total delight as Birdy, a star-making role that reminds me a little of Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes, with her to-the-point voice-over detailing all her teenaged, coming-of-age 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 Birdy and her father rage at each other over their competing interests.
What works so well here is Dunham’s irreverence when it comes to the typically stuffy tropes of historical pictures. This is all unapologetically contemporary, with the ba-de-ba-de-bahs of choral voices backing up a lot of the scenes providing a lot of self-awareness in the tone. We’re never in danger of taking anything too seriously despite the dark reality of the situation Birdy is in. I couldn’t help but think about something like The Little Hours in comparison, which coincidentally also starred Girls alum Jemima Kirke, though this picture isn’t quite so ribald.
Dunham’s gift with character, evident no matter the time frame, shines through. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being able to relate to Birdy’s anxieties and lack of freedom, even as she’s also, plainly, an entirely entitled and selfish teen.
And it helps that put simply, Birdy, as well as the movie around her, are hilarious to a fault.