May 25, 2024

Lena Dunham On Navigating The Medieval Genre Through A Feminist Lens

I can’t have been the only person surprised to learn that Lena Dunham – the director/actor/podcaster/everything-er behind Girls – was at the helm of a film set in medieval times.

After all, this was the woman whose most well-known character, Girls’ Hannah Horvath – a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Lena herself – infamously deemed herself the millennial “voice of a generation. ” In reality, Lena has been considered a leading millennial voice, so aptly commentating on our contemporary culture through her film and television work (in her debut film, Tiny Furniture; directing the pilot of HBO’s Industry; the list goes on) and, more recently, in her podcast The C-Word.

So what drove her to enter the world of medieval fiction? Not, it seems, the battles and gore so often associated with this genre; Catherine Called Birdy is instead a relatable, coming-of-age story that just so happens to be set in the 13th century.

“I’m interested in the history of domestic life,” Lena Dunham – who fully accepts my preconceptions – tells me, “Not a battle for a crown. I was excited by the idea of trying to show both the things that were so specific about that time and also the things that are timeless. ”

The result is not so much a history as a herstory; the only bloodiness is when Birdy, the film’s 14-year-old protagonist, played by Bella Ramsey, gets her first period. The only “fight” scene is a joyous mud fight which opens the film’s action. And, in a genre which so often shows the ill-treatment of women at the hands of men, our teenage protagonist has a refreshing ownership over the storytelling, narrating through voiceovers from the beginning.

Lena optioned the film rights for Catherine Called Birdy – a coming-of-age, young adult (YA) book by Karen Cushman – almost a decade ago, and filming was originally intended for the spring of 2020 when lockdown put a spanner in the works.

While Lena’s teenage drama directing was put on pause, did lockdown stimulate her interest in the “inner child”? “Absolutely. It made people, and I am including myself, examine themselves in a way that is a little bit unprecedented. ” She adds: ”It wouldn’t surprise me if a few people came out of lockdown with some really intense coming-of-age narratives they’d written. I came out of lockdown with a couple of my own. ”

That last part makes me speculate whether we might expect a YA take on Girls from her someday. But, for now, let’s stay in the present – by which I suppose that means the medieval period – and hear from Lena, in her own words, about her latest film.

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