Stunning, low-key deeply-moving drama as a child flourishes with love in this Irish drama
Director: Colm Bairéad
Cast: Catherine Clinch (Cáit), Carrie Crowley (Eibhlín Kinsella), Andrew Bennett (Seán Kinsella), Michael Patric (Da), Kate Nic Chonaonaigh (Mam)
Childhood can be difficult. Even more so when the child knows they are an unwanted daughter, in an overlarge family overseen by an uncaring father (Michael Patric) more interested in the horses and the bottle than those his family. Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is a quiet child in early 1980s Ireland who has learned quietness because she knows no one cares what she has to say. When her Ma (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is expecting another child, Cáit is sent to stay with her Ma’s middle-aged cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) on their farm. There she finds a warmth, care and love she never knew at her home. But, though this is a house with warmth and “no secrets”, it is also a home where a painful loss is never spoken of.
Adapted from one of the finest short stories from Claire Keegan, one of Ireland’s leading novelists, The Quiet Girl became the most successful Irish film of all time and the first nominated for an Oscar. It’s no wonder: this is a beautifully made, carefully crafted and immensely moving film, overflowing with humanity and empathy that left me dapping my eyes.
Perfectly scripted and directed with a quiet controlled restraint by Bairéad, The Quiet Girl is a film that throbs with emotion, a collection of small events and everyday moments of kindness that bloom into moments of great resonance by the skilful empathy built up for this child. Throughout the film, shot in a Academy ratio 4:3, Cáit is frequently positioned in the centre of the frame. At first, in her home and school, this superbly stresses her isolation. Events bustle around her, family members casting shadows over her. She stares down and away from us and feels like the single fixed point in a world of motion. She sits unnoticed in the backseats of cars and watching her father drink in pubs. She is at the centre of our perception, but adrift in a sea of activity around her.
Bairéad superbly uses this device throughout to slowly bring characters and interactions to curve inwards and focus on Cáit much as we do. When she arrives at her aunt’s farm, for the first time the attention of others in the frame settles on her. Their eyes are on her, they speak to her, move to connect with her. The Quiet Girl is intensely moving as it shows the difference a change of scene can make, the warmth and love can make to a child who has known nothing like it.
This is in many ways a simple story, but the low-key tenderness which Bairéad tells it gives it immense power. Cáit – played with quiet gentleness by Catherine Clinch – is a sensitive, intelligent and caring girl who has never been allowed to flourish. It’s striking after the film’s first fifteen minutes showcasing the indifference she faces, how much your heart glows as Eibhlín talks to her, makes her feel comfortable, washes her and tucks her up in bed. It’s a world away from the neglect we’ve seen Cáit suffer.
This is a film where small acts of kindness bring tears to the viewers eyes. When Cáit wets the bed on her first night – too scared to use the toilet – Eibhlín immediately notes her fear (she expected punishment) and apologises for giving her “a mattress that weeps”. Eibhlín separates her from her uncomfortable clothes, teaches her basic household tasks, brushes her hair, encourages her to feel a part of their home. For the first time Cáit is treated not as a burden – or worse – but as a human being. This is brilliantly conveyed by Carrie Crowley as Eibhlín, who delivers a performance of immense emotional depth, both tender and kind but with a deeper layer of sadness underneath, the cause of which is slowly revealed.
Bairéad is sensitive about the home environment Cáit has emerged from. There are dark hints: her Da is, at best, a potentially violent drunk with a temper and Cáit is introduced first hiding in a field, then under her bed. Arriving at her foster home she has a fear of “secrets”. Eibhlín is quick to pick up on this, reassuing her there are no secrets here.
No secrets perhaps, but a pain never spoken of. Cáit’s room is decorated in train wallpaper and she sleeps in a child’s bed. She is dressed in boy’s clothes (“our old things”) only a few sizes too big for her. Seán finds her hard to look at, at first – but when, under her care, she wanders off he becomes panicked and distressed. The loss this sad couple suffered is clear to us and The Quiet Girl becomes a film of mutual healing. There is pain on both sides: a child with parents and parents without a child.
Seán’s growing bond with Cáit is wonderfully paced and deeply affecting. Gruff but kindly, Andrew Bennett’s performance melts the heart. From a biscuit placed without comment on a table to a run to the post-box that turns into a repeated game, their slowly flourishing love is simply beautiful. As he buttons her coat or the two of them race to sweep clean the cow shed, you’ll find it impossible not to be moved. Seán is slower to bond with the child than Eibhlín, but both of them find the pain in their heart slowly eased by allowing theirs to open to this quiet, caring child.
Of course, it is only a holiday that must end. Bairéad’s film ends with Keegan’s own, tinged with a slight ambiguity. But it’s a beautiful one for all that, a heart-rending tribute to emotional connection between people. Bairéad’s film has this empathy running through it like a pulse. Shot with an immense visual beauty that turns everyday objects into items of intense beauty – from tables to drains – The Quiet Girl is a deeply moving quiet masterpiece, which carries a low-key emotional impact that is hard to beat and impossible to forget.