Catherine Called Birdy

Posted on September 22, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, discussions of forced marriage, references to battles, stillbirth, offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2022

Copyright 2022 Amazon
Lena Dunham is a remarkably talented writer and director and this loving, joyous adaptation of YA favorite novel Catherine Called Birdy is a passion project for her, as we can seen from her affectionate portrayal of a rebellious girl in the Middle Ages. Before I get to the details of the story, I want to take a moment to note Dunham’s exceptional talent in casting. One of the palpable pleasures of this film worth noting is the superb selection of performers. Even the smallest role is cast with care and beautifully performed. High marks to Dunham and to her casting directors Catriona Dickie and Nina Gold.

“Games of Thrones” actress Bella Ramsey is ideal as the title character, the 14-year-old daughter of a feckless nobleman (Andrew. Scott as Lord Rollo) and his kind-hearted wife (Billie Piper as Lady Aislinn). We are introduced to the family and household with brief written descriptions, video game style. They include Birdy’s nurse and confidant, Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), her brothers, one a monk she likes and one living in the castle with her she mostly ignores. Her friends are Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), who cares for the pigs, and another noble teenager, the beautiful Alis (Isis Hainsworth), who comes to visit once a month with her parents. She also adores her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who comes for a visit after fighting in the Crusades.

Birdy (nickname from the pigeons she keeps) is a fierce, independent young woman who describes her “lady lessons” as my two least favorite words in one terrible phrase.” She feels unfairly constricted by the norms of her time, and has a long lost of activities unfairly forbidden to women. She is mostly ignored by her father, until he is informed that (1) he is in need of money and (2) the primary asset he can use to get money is his marriageable daughter. In the calculations of the time. a young woman who carries a title is equivalent to a wealthy man without one. As soon as her father finds out that she has begun to menstruate and is therefore ready to bear children, he sends out word that she is ready to be sold into matrimony. She has a series of amusing encounters as she scares off would-be suitors. Finally, though, after Alis is “married” to a nine-year-old, Birdy is promised to the worst of them all.

Dunham gives us a Middle Ages compound that is suitably grimy, with evocative production design by Kave Quinn and costumes from Julian Day and a score from Carter Burwell. But the modern sensibility is evident through contemporary songs on the soundtrack and Birdy’s commentary. She may be ignorant about some of the basic facts of life, but the more interesting knowledge she gains over the course of the film concerns her increased understanding of people and their motivations.

Dunham, like the book’s author Karen Cushman, effectively uses the Middle Ages setting to raise not just contemporary but eternal issues of conflicts between independence and connections of our friends and family, between challenging traditions and allowing them to provide continuity. The humor and pop songs keep the more dire aspects of the story from distracting us when what she wants us to see is Birdy’s resilience and open-heartedness.

Parents should know that this film is frank about puberty and has sexual references and childbirth scenes, including a sad stillbirth. There is off-screen violence, with references to the Crusades and the death of a child, and a sword fight with one participant wounded.

Family discussion: Why did Birdy and Alis have different ideas about how to behave? Why didn’t she agree to go with Ethelfritha? The screenwriter changed the ending from the book. Which ending do you prefer?

If you like this, try: the book and the book series by Tamora Pierce

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Trailer: Documentary About Illustrator Hilary Knight of “Eloise” and “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle”

Posted on March 11, 2015 at 8:00 am

Copyright Scholastic 1987
Copyright Scholastic 1987

I have loved Hilary Knight’s illustrations for as long as I can remember. The words about Eloise, the little girl who lives in New York’s Plaza Hotel, were written by nightclub singer Kay Thompson. But the illustrations were by Hilary Knight, and I pored over them for hours because they were do detailed, witty, and expressive. Later, when I first read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, I recognized Knight’s penwork right away.

Lena Dunham (“Girls”) loves Eloise and Knight so dearly she has an Eloise tattoo. She spoke to the New York Daily News:

“I think so many young women were obsessed with Eloise’s unruly magic,” she said. “She’s just such a remarkably independent, vanity-free, complex little girl, and as a little girl you don’t see that many representations of yourself beyond a good little child with pigtails. So it was meaningful.”

And now she has made a documentary about Knight called, “It’s Me, Hilary,” that will be on HBO, premiering March 23, 2015.

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Lena Dunham on “The Big Chill” Generation

Posted on August 4, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I am a big fan of Lena Dunham, and her essay on “The Big Chill” and its generation — her parents’ generation — is enormously thoughtful and beautifully written. Her insight and her generosity of spirit are very moving. And it reminds us that film can be, at its best, what Roger Ebert called “an empathy machine.” You can never know your parents as they were when they were your age. But, Dunham says, movies like this can remind us that once they were young and certain they would never become like their own parents.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O19k-YtwXTg

There is so much you can’t imagine. You can’t imagine your parents on this weekend, dancing around the kitchen to Motown as they cook a big meal, moving their butts jauntily and leading with their shoulders. Many years later, at your bat mitzvah or your cousin Stephanie’s wedding, the way they dance will make you want to kill yourself. But if you could see them over this weekend, all together, if you trained a camera on them and let them dance back and forth, you would understand: they were young once too, and this is how they learned to dance, and now every time they dance that way they feel young again, even if you’re scowling at them from across the room and wishing they would explode.

What if someone found a way to show you? To show you that your father’s friend with the glasses and the nasal voice, someone found him sexy once, held his hand furtively, thought he was the wit of the century. And your mother’s friend with the bouclé jacket who calls a thousand times to ask if you got her email about her son’s wedding invitations? Someone once wanted her badly enough that he chased her into the freezing yard and gnawed on her neck like a lamb shank. And that big lazy drunk who sends money at Christmas, who gets food stuck in his mustache and dates social workers? Well, he did the gnawing. And your aunt who isn’t really technically your aunt, she did want kids of her own. She tried.

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