‘Catherine Called Birdy’ Reflects a Disappointing Trend towards Poorly-Written, Not-So-Historical, Feminist Dramas

By Kathryn McDonald 

It is safe to say that we have entered an era in which film has begun attempting to adapt stories to be relatable and raw like never before. For teens, this means gone are the days of movies and television which do not address the daily concerns of adolescent life. The trend seems to be, however, that stories are told at the expense of any kind of historical accuracy. Modern concerns become the focal point of historical dramas, and while an honest look at daily life can be refreshing, ridiculous adaptations of historical fiction continue to be released and promoted to audiences with disappointing results. 

“Catherine Called Birdy”, based on the book of the same name by Karen Cushman, is a loosely historical coming-of-age dramedy set at the end of the thirteenth century in England. 

The premise of the story is that the mischievous Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), known to her friends as Birdy, is beginning to face the wild world of womanhood and is in denial about the childhood that she must now put behind her. The youngest living child of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), Birdy’s world is one of fun and games until the unexpected arrival of her period which then marks the beginning of adulthood for Birdy. 

Birdy’s relationship with her Uncle George teaches her what true heroism is. 

Now that she is a woman, her father decides to escape the life of poverty he has brought upon his once-wealthy family by marrying Birdy off to the highest bidder. Birdy is determined to avoid marriage at all costs which leads to a string of disappointed suitors who Birdy either scares off or uses her wits to avoid. 

Navigating life alongside Birdy are her friends Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), and her trusted mentors which include her nursemaid Morwenna (Lesley Sharp) and Uncle George (Joe Alwyn). 

At the behest of her brother Edward, a monk, Birdy begins a diary in which she records the highs and lows of growing up. Her adventures include training to become a lady, her first kiss, planning to run away from home with her best friend(s), and many mischievous plots to disrupt her family life. 

It is interesting to see how a book written as a diary was adapted for the screen. First-person narration and a fast-paced plot create the feeling that the audience is along for the ride, similar to the style of the original story. 

It can be noted that while marketed to younger audiences, the content may be more appropriate for older teens and young adults. Constant references to sex, gender, and more adult jokes make this less of a movie to help teens embrace growing up than it is a movie for grown-ups to laugh at the ignorance of youths facing the world. 

One of the more frustrating observations I made as I watched this movie is that there never seems to be much resolution to the problems that Birdy faces as she grows up. The movie ends with her just as immature as she was at the start of the film. Having successfully avoided all opportunities for matrimony, she seems content to live her life in pursuit of entertainment and mischievous diversions from adult responsibilities. Can we really say that this is a coming-of-age film if the character never really develops? 

Birdy’s adventures highlight some of the timeless challenges that teenagers face. 

That said there are still some valuable life lessons that Birdy learns following many of her mistakes throughout the film. When she speaks in anger or frustration, she learns the power that her words have on the hearts of those closest to her. When she speaks words in anger to her closest friends, Birdy realizes how she has damaged the relationship. 

“Catherine Called Birdy”  is definitely a movie that reflects a modern view of quasi-historical issues and culture. The danger lies in applying our cultural lens to interpret historical events. The daily lives of men and women in times gone by should not be used in an attempt to validate the men and women of today. While still a fun flick to watch with friends, perhaps this movie is best when it is not taken seriously. 

“Catherine Called Birdy ” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Kathryn McDonald is a senior Psychology major and writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of Cedars. You can probably catch her writing a letter to a friend in the library or drinking coffee from her favorite mug. When she is not at her desk studying, she is probably on her phone catching up with friends or reading her favorite volumes of American poetry.

Images courtesy of Prime Video

3 Replies to "‘Catherine Called Birdy’ Reflects a Disappointing Trend towards Poorly-Written, Not-So-Historical, Feminist Dramas"

  • comment-avatar
    Evelyn October 18, 2022 (3:12 am)

    I am 81 and rather enjoyed watching this movie last evening. It was a refreshing change from serious police dramas and made me laugh. Also, it is not true that Birdy was as immature in the ending as she was in the beginning of her story. She learned that she loved her family and friends more than her desire to run away from responsibilities. And was willing to sacrifice her own happiness by having to marry Shaggy Beard in order to help her friend and brother marry. This review is a bit too harsh on a rather charming film.

  • comment-avatar
    Morgan January 22, 2023 (9:05 pm)

    I compliment your endeavor to write a review that addresses content rather than summarize it. It is nice to see time and thought put into a review, rather than a rushed clump of SEO pings. That said, I think your bias and ire has shuttered you from an objective reflection. For one, your focus on the lack of maturation is deliberately blind to the overt but smoothly intertwined maturation that Birdy makes. I see you’re a psychology major, so it also seems odd to me that you wouldn’t notice Birdy’s first steps into shifting from an egocentric child, to being a young woman who can recognize, acknowledge, and even sometimes help the needs of others. She goes from being unwilling to sacrifice anything to putting the needs and desires of others before hers. And not without knowledge of how it impacts her–it’s a mature and deliberate transition, which fully blossoms when she gives up her purse for Robert’s happiness, without expectation of reward or even thanks. And there are many other moments along the way, steps forward and sometimes backwards, where she makes this transition. And there is a lovely symbolism in that, while her menarche is what triggers world’s change, it is not what makes her a ‘woman’ or an ‘adult’. It’s her willingness to at least try to serve the needs and desires of others, even at the expense of her own happiness or pride, which makes her an adult at the end. And, it happened that her father made a similar transition at the climax of the movie–he hated living in poverty, refused responsibility for his hand in it, yet realized he was selling his daughter into a horrific life, in exchange for bettering his own. And thus, at the pivotal moment, he protested, put his life in danger, and also ‘bled’ for his transition to full adulthood. And when ‘Shaggy Beard’ refused to face the same risk, he exposed himself as an old and selfish child.

    Don’t get me wrong–you’re right that the historical accuracy was a lower priority for much of the film, and it was a film meant for entertainment above all. When we honestly lack so much insight into how the day-to-day lives for women were like (particularly their thoughts), we do apply our own cultural lens, as best we can. And I saw that as part of the message–young women today face far better opportunities and blessings than those in the medieval times. However, there are also many restrictions on who and what they can be, simply because gender constructs continue to pin and push them into socially acceptable corners. It is a timeless issue that endures across generations and cultures, simply because biology influences societal constructs.

    Just my two cents–continue to watch and review movies, this was an interesting read :). I disagree, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

  • comment-avatar
    Lisa Carswell December 30, 2023 (6:22 pm)

    Um, I belive this story was meant to be a fun and endearing romp with Bella Ramsay’s infectious zest for life as Birdy at it’s center. Lots of funny and tender moments. To try to make it into something more misses the point. I say bravo to a delightful cast and crew. Thank you!

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