Secrets swirl in this quiet heartbreaker of a film

The Quiet Girl ★★★★
(M) 95 minutes

This delicate heartbreaker of a film is wrapped around a deceptively simple premise.

In her chaotic, down-at-heel family household, nobody has much time for nine-year-old Cait (Catherine Clinch) and when her mother becomes pregnant yet again, she is sent off to spend the summer with her mother’s childless cousin, Eibhlin Cinnsealach (Carrie Crowley), and her husband, Sean (Andrew Bennett), whom Cait has never met.

Cait (Catherine Clinch) watches her father leave in The Quiet Girl.Credit:

Eibhlin, who is gentle, elegant and blessed with an instinctive understanding of small, shy children, greets her warmly, but Sean holds off. It’s only when Cait gives him a fright one day by wandering off that he lets his guard down.

The film was written and directed by Colm Bairead. He adapted it from Foster, a short story by Claire Keegan that first appeared in The New Yorker before its publication as a novella. And it’s in Irish Gaelic, becoming the first Irish language film to be shown in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won a Silver Bear.

The misty beauty of the Irish countryside, where the Cinnsealachs have their farm, invests Cait’s new life with a dreamy serenity. She has chores to do, helping Eibhlin in the house and sweeping out the barns with Sean, but the kindness of these two and the calm, orderly pace of their daily routines are so reassuring that she quickly begins to thrive.

But we’re becoming aware that something is being kept from her. When she’s first brought to the farm, her father forgets to unload her suitcase from the car, and she’s left with only the clothes she’s wearing. Yet Eibhlin quickly produces a shirt, boots and a pair of trousers that happen to fit a child of her size.

Irish life: The Quiet Girl.Credit:

Enough hints follow for you to guess at the secret but when the truth emerges, it still has an impact. It’s not the revelation itself but the fact that we have become completely attuned to Cait’s point of view. Like her, we’ve been cocooned, and this unwelcome intrusion is an icy blast – a cold reminder of the callousness to be found in the outside world.

Clinch’s Cait is an endearing creation – a child whose wisdom and composure have grown out of the introspection imposed on her by a family who regard her as an oddity. We don’t really meet her siblings. Bairead is so scrupulous in filtering the action through her gaze that we never face them directly. She avoids them and so do we. They’re a flurry of noise and movement in the background, while her mother remains a harried figure in the corner of the frame. All we discern is her stress. We never really learn how she feels about her silent, elusive daughter.

Cait’s father is a more forceful presence. He calls her “the wanderer” because she’s so intent on escaping the rest of them – heading off on her own to hide in the long grass in a nearby field to shut out the racket.

And he’s a drinker who spends hours in the pub while his wife worries about the bills and the farm work left undone. Even so, Bairead doesn’t labour the point. A genius when it comes to dramatic shorthand, he never gives us any more than we need to know. And whatever it is, it’s seen from Cait’s vantage point.

As her father is driving her to the Cinnsealachs’ farm, for example, he stops to pick up a young woman at the side of the road. They exchange just a few sentences before she gets out again, but they’re enough to let us know that he’s having an affair.

Does Cait realise it, too? Probably, but if she does, she keeps the fact to herself. Her father seems indifferent to her wellbeing. It’s only his macho arrogance that causes him to resent the help that the Cinnsealachs are offering.

With them, she finds a different world. Time is taken, care is given, as Eibhlin and Sean show her another way to live. For the first time in her life, she feels as if she’s being seen and heard. That’s the film’s real revelation.

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