Year:  2021

Director:  Colm Bairéad

Rated:  M

Release:  September 8, 2022

Distributor: Madman

Running time: 95 minutes

Worth: $20.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Catherine Clinch, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Michael Patric, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Joan Sheehy

… a subtle and thoughtful masterwork that never devolves into mawkishness or over-sentimentality.

The dictum “Children should be seen and not heard” is one that nine-year-old Cáit (Catherine Clinch) has taken to heart. For the reserved girl, being seen isn’t something that comes with any benefits in her hardscrabble existence in early 1980s rural Ireland. Cáit is one of several children living on a ramshackle farm with her exhausted and heavily pregnant mother, Máthair (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) and her feckless father, Athair (Michael Patric). Cáit is struggling at school and neglected at home. She has learned in her young life how to fold in on herself to the point of almost disappearing.

Come summer, Cáit’s parents decide that it would be for the best to ship her off to Máithair’s cousin Eibhlín’s (Carrie Crowley) farm. The child isn’t consulted about the decision and even if she were, there is the sense that she wouldn’t know how to resist her parents’ wishes unlike some of her more forceful siblings.

Cáit’s silence is exemplified in the drive to Eibhlín’s farm. She watches the countryside become more verdant and at one stage tries to engage her father in conversation about football, but mostly she just looks out on the world behind a frame of hair that hides her face. Cáit is an observer, and it is ideal that writer/director Colm Bairéad utilises her point-of-view as the anchor for how the audience understands what is happening around her.

Once Cáit arrives at the farm, which is significantly more prosperous than her home, she is greeted with instant affection by Eibhlín, who gently touches the child’s face and notices the sorry state of her clothing. Athair can barely contain his contempt for Eibhlín and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett), and after an uncomfortable lunch drives off without bothering to give Cáit her suitcase containing her clothes.

The delicacy with which Bairéad handles Cáit’s slow blossoming on the farm is remarkable. Bairéad allows the gentle rhythms of Eibhlín and Seán’s days with Cáit to unfold in a painterly manner. Daily walks to the well to collect water are repeated and the audience sees how they form intimacy between Eibhlín and Cáit. The ritual of Cáit having her hair brushed by Eibhlín is punctuated by the growing relationship between Cáit and the taciturn but caring Seán.

When Cáit asks if going to the well is a secret, Eibhlín replies that “There are no secrets in this house.” There is something that Cáit’s foster parents aren’t telling her that pervades their home. Canny viewers will have picked up on it before the eventual and rather cruel reveal to Cáit by the gossiping neighbour Úna (Joan Sheehy). The melancholy news makes sense of Seán’s initial resistance to getting close to Cáit and explains why Eibhlín’s instincts as a mother are evident in all her interactions with the girl.

Over the summer, Cáit experiences the tenderness of being seen and touched, and importantly, heard. Watching the child grow into a joyous creature who runs with abandon and learns how to play, is akin to seeing a flower open in sunlight. Cinematographer Kate McCullough places Cáit in the lush fields of County Waterford and allows the motif of the gentle and grassy landscape to echo Cáit’s emergence.

As the summer closes, Cáit must return home. The audience aches for the child to remain with her loving foster parents but reality bruises the delicate balance that Cáit, Eibhlín, and Seán have created in their temporary family. In a film brimming with poignant moments, Bairéad saves the best for last. The final scene is heartbreaking and absolutely deserved for all its emotional impact.

Bairéad adapts Claire Keegan’s novella Foster for the screen with absolute empathy. The use of Irish Gaelic language is essential to the veracity of the film, but also reminds the audience how important the language is to certain parts of Ireland and the tragedy of its suppression.

Catherine Clinch, in her first screen role as Cáit, is a revelation. She captures all the nuances of a child cowed by an adult world that she partially understands but has no agency in. As her agency increases under the care of her foster family, she shines on the screen like a newly minted penny. Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett similarly shine, as they heal in the presence of Cáit. Crowley deftly portrays Eibhlín’s silent pain and aching need to give love. Bennett gives a restrained and powerful performance as a man whose wounds run deep but whose gentle nature echoes the well thought out silences of The Quiet Girl of the title. “Many’s the person who missed the opportunity to say nothing,” he reassures Cáit.

Bairéad’s debut film is a subtle and thoughtful masterwork that never devolves into mawkishness or over-sentimentality. The Quiet Girl is a film about everyday misfortune and how the smallest acts of kindness can transform lives in profound ways. For Cáit, a summer spent with people who are attentive, and gentle is the most important event in her young life, and she emerges forever changed. Although she tells her father and mother “Nothing happened” regarding an incident on the farm, what is true is that everything happened, and the temporary family formed in a few halcyon months are the true family that Cáit greatly needed.


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