Catherine Called Birdy is an energetic, anachronistic romp showing the coming of age of a young girl in medieval England. Written and directed by Lena Dunham it is a tour de force of wit and humour. Dunham based her film on a dearly-loved book from her childhood written by Karen Cushman. The reason for the outpouring of Birdy’s adolescence is that her brother, a monk at a local abbey, has requested she keep a diary.

The film opens with the exuberant Birdy being the fiercest warrior in a full-on mud fight. We then follow her rebellious route as the onset of her periods makes her a potentially marriageable female. Birdy plots to disguise her entrance into adulthood, by hiding her self-made menstrual rags under the floorboards of the privy. She repulses any suitors through various ploys – by dressing as a ghoul or giving them poultices of shit – and so escape the horror of forced marriage.

Dunham isn’t afraid of making virginity a running theme, considering the trials of pregnancy and eventually the pain, dangers and grief of stillbirth. Dunham meets these themes head-on, showing their effect on a 14-year-old girl in 1290. The 13th Century is nicely juxtaposed with pop music, bringing this version of medieval times into the 21st century.

There is a fantastic cast starting with Bella Ramsay in the titular role, the splendid Andrew Scott as her spendthrift father and a barely recognisable Billie Piper as her long-suffering mother. These stellar actors are backed up by the fearsome but loving maidservant Morwenna, played by Lesley Sharp and the rich, quirky bride, beautifully portrayed by Sophie Okonedo, who ‘buys’ Birdy’s brother as a husband.

The dialogue shifts nimbly between the antiquated and the new, and includes a smattering of Latin. The first Latin phrase spoken by Birdie sets out the concept of the film, it is translated as, ‘My father is a beast.’ 

There is what passes as ’olde English’ ‘Mayhap’ is bandied about and Birdie sweetly claims the goat herd Perkin is her ‘heart brother’. We are reminded of our distance from medieval times when Morwenna complains to the muddy Birdy: 

‘It’s just been a fortnight since I last washed you.’ This continues with Scott asking his daughter:

‘What colour is your hair when it’s clean?’

‘Blue, I think.’ Birdie replies.

Dunham has created a delightful film which will be particularly enjoyed by a young audience, but can be appreciated by all. 

Streaming now on Amazon Prime