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‘Catherine Called Birdy’ is a sprightly critique of the patriarchy

Lena Dunham’s adaptation of the Newbery Honor-winning novel centers on a 13th-century teenage girl who just isn’t having it

Bella Ramsey in “Catherine Called Birdy.” (Alex Bailey/Prime Video)
(3 stars)

An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that the Newbery Honor-winning novel "Catherine, Called Birdy" won a Newbery Medal. The story has been corrected.

In “Catherine Called Birdy,” Lena Dunham’s sprightly adaptation of Karen Cushman’s Newbery Honor-winning novel, Bella Ramsey plays the title character, an irrepressible 14-year-old girl living in medieval England and chafing against the era’s unenlightened habits and patriarchal strictures.

The patriarch in question is Lord Rollo, a dissolute aristocrat whose love of drink and impulsive acquisitiveness have led to hard times at Stonebridge Manor, the family pile. He sets out to marry off young Lady Catherine — nicknamed Birdy, after her favorite pets — unaware that his best-laid plans will be foiled at every turn by his headstrong, ungovernable daughter.

Similar to recent adaptations of “Persuasion” and “Emma,” Dunham imbues “Catherine Called Birdy” with lots of clever anachronisms, including a pop-tastic soundtrack, dominated by Misty Miller performing covers of songs like Supergrass’s “Alright” and Alicia Keys. She has assembled a nimble cast of players who are all in on the joke, including Andrew Scott as the perpetually tipsy but somehow un-hateable Lord Rollo; Billie Piper as his perpetually pregnant wife; Lesley Sharp as Birdy’s patient nursemaid Morwenna; and Joe Alwyn as the adored Uncle George, who has just returned from the Crusades, an epic battle Birdy longs to join.

Ramsey, most familiar to viewers from her role in “Game of Thrones,” is less appealing, but only because her character is as bratty as she is beguilingly cheeky. Following Cushman’s epistolary structure, “Catherine Called Birdy” unfolds as a series of diary entries, narrated in a self-satisfied tone that grates over time. Still, Dunham keeps the action brisk and the humor quotient high, as Birdy foils a succession of suitors, often by way of slapstick high jinks and general over-the-top japery.

As breezily self-confident as its eponymous heroine, “Catherine Called Birdy” crucially departs from the original text in the film’s final act, a paean to female independence and an adumbration of the change about to take place with the rise of the Renaissance. As Birdy has always known and some of us are still learning, the patriarchy is so 13th century.

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains some suggestive material and mature thematic elements. 108 minutes.