Film Reviews

The Quiet Girl

Published September 2, 2022
Cáit being quiet

Before I sat down to watch The Quiet Girl, I was told, over and again, it was “a beautiful film”. Regardless of the professional cynicism weekly reviewing breeds, I can now report: It’s a beautiful film.

Colm Bairéad’s debut feature has won major awards at international film festivals in Berlin and Dublin, triumphing in eight out of eleven categories at this year’s Irish Film and Television Awards. When released at home in May it broke box-office records for an Irish movie and has already become the highest-grossing gaelic-language feature of all time.

By now you’re probably asking: “What is this monster of a film? An Irish Top Gun? A gaelic James Bond?” The title plays gently on John Ford’s Hollywood classic, The Quiet Man (1952), in which John Wayne finds romance and fisticuffs in a small town in Ireland. Beyond the title, there is no resemblance whatsoever between the two movies.

The Quiet Girl is a coming-of-age story. The lead character, rarely off-screen, is a nine-year-old girl named Cáit, played by Catherine Clinch (aged 12) with a poignancy that is almost supernatural. Although words have to be dragged out of this painfully shy child, her expression and body language speak poetically. The director says he chose Clinch, a first-time actor, because of a quality of “interiority”. This quality is apparent whenever the camera lingers on the girl’s face. Her moments of sadness and fear are conveyed by the slightest wrinkle of her brow, a twitch of the mouth or a glint in the eye. A star is born.

It’s impossible to be more succinct than Bairéad’s own plot summary: “a girl goes and stays with relatives”. But, oh, what depths and subtleties are concealed by that banal description!

The story is set in 1981, a troublesome year in Ireland, but not in this film, which contains no trace of politics. Cáit is part of a large family living on a farm in a rural area, but her existence is far from happy. She hides in the grass, away from the other children, and conceals herself under the bed. She has difficulties at school, and always seems mildly traumatised.

To understand the root of her problems one need only cast a glance at her mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh), pregnant again, too tired and slovenly to make sandwiches for the children’s lunchboxes. Her father (Michael Patric) is even worse: a lazy, spiteful good-for-nothing who spends his days gambling, boozing and womanising. There’s not a trace of warmth in this family, not a single word that isn’t a complaint or a put-down.

To ease the burden over the school holidays, her father takes Cáit to stay with relatives in distant Waterford County. Eibhlín and Seán Cinnsealach (pr. “Kinsella”), are a study in contrasts with Cáit’s family. They are childless, and slightly older. Their farmhouse is clean and tidy, food is plentiful and offered freely. From the beginning, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) showers the girl with affection, giving her a bath to wash off the accumulated grime, brushing her hair, trying to engage her in conversation and household activities.

Seán (Andrew Bennett), is gruff and stand-offish at first, but when he lets down his defences he starts treating the girl as if she were his own daughter. For Cáit, who has obviously never experienced a loving moment within her own family, this seems miraculous and hard to accept.

Having learned to be wary of everything, Cáit is forever reflecting on what she sees and hears. She has heard her father say the Kinsellas can keep her as long as they like, so far as he’s concerned. She’s heard Eibhlín’s heartfelt cries of “God help you!”, delivered when she thinks the child is asleep.

In one scene, Eibhlín tells the girl: “If there are secrets in a house, there is shame in that house. There are no secrets in this house.” There is, however, the water in the well, which Eibhlín says has “secret” skin care properties, and a much bigger secret that Cáit learns about in an ugly way from a nosey, sniping neighbour (Joan Sheedy), who looks after her for an hour or so.

Throughout the film we are struck by the good nature and compassion of the Kinsellas and repelled by figures such as the neighbour and Cáit’s father, who seem to hold the entire human race in contempt. Bairéad doesn’t portray these characters as stereotypes, he allows us to understand them through tiny details, as when Cáit’s father stubs out a cigarette on his dinner plate, making Eibhlín wince involuntarily. When she gives him an armful of rhubarb to take home, a few stalks drop on the floor. His response is to wait for the Kinsellas to pick them up while he looks on disdainfully.

It’s also through details that we find our way into Cáit’s closely guarded psyche. When she runs to collect the mail the film slows down and becomes dreamlike. The sunlight flickers through the trees, and Stephen Rennick’s excellent, unobstrusive score emphasises her pure pleasure. The camera portrays Cáit’s family home as dark and grubby, making us peer through doorways and linger in dark corners. At the Kinsellas’ we spend much of our time in a bright, airy kitchen, or the cow sheds, which Seán is perpetually scrubbing. All of this is seen as if through Cáit’s eyes.

There’s no need for a lot of dialogue when images are made to speak so eloquently, and the Kinsellas win Cáit’s trust by not trying too hard to get her to talk. When words do come, they take on a disproportionate weight. Seán tells the girl: “Many’s the person missed the opportunity to say nothing and lost much because of it.” There’s a lesson for the Irish, and indeed for all of us.

It’s purely coincidental that in successive weeks I’ve reviewed films about traumatised young girls, but any comparison between Baireád’s The Quiet Girl and Del Kathryn Barton’s Blaze, would only serve to emphasise the superior skills of the Irish filmmaker. The visual props and fantasy sequences in the Australian film ring hollow when one sees what Baireád achieves through conventional cinematic storytelling and cinematography. When Seán silently leaves Cáit a biscuit, it’s truly a magical moment.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the way in which the directors control the emotional tempo of their respective movies. Blaze spends an hour drawing us down into a pit of gloom then ends with an unconvincing burst of positivity. The Quiet Girl is so exquisitely modulated we feel Cáit’s every twinge of pain or shame but are constantly buoyed by the “minding” supplied by the Kinsellas. Although we realise this happy interlude must end with the girl returning to her dysfunctional family, the way those last scenes unfold will leave viewers gasping in the aisles. It’s as if we have been listening to a long, complex piece of music that reaches a crescendo of startling power. When we say the film is “beautiful” it’s a tacit admission of the inadequacy of words.


The Quiet Girl

Directed by Colm Bairéad

Written by Colm Bairéad, after the story, ‘Foster’, by Claire Keegan

Starring: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Carolyn Bracken, Norette Leahy, Joan Sheedy

Ireland, rated M, 94 mins



Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 September, 2022