'The Quiet Girl' (2021), Director: Colm Bairead, Ireland
The English word 'Daddy' in Irish Gaelic is 'Daidi'. The closing moments of A Quiet Girl
, Colm Bairead's beautifully restrained Gaelic-language debut feature, would be less powerfully heartbreaking were this not so, if, that is, the words, spoken, didn't sound more or less the same.
Cait, the film's titular character, says the word twice as the film ends, with just seconds in between, but deeply divided in terms of meaning. The effect is devastating. Up until then, Irish Gaelic, with English subtitles, has functioned throughout as a kind of murmuring, a gently lyrical aural accompaniment to the story, as it builds quietly towards its emotional denouement.
Based on Claire Keegan's novella, Foster
(2010), which, I learned from the Dublin Review
, is a school exam text in Ireland – and which I immediately bought and read in one sitting – Bairead's film is set in rural Ireland in 1981, in a part of Waterford where Irish is the main spoken language. The film takes much of the dialogue from Keegan's wonderful text, frequently quoting its sparse prose verbatim.
In place of the first person internal monologue that Keegan uses, the director, who faithfully tells the story completely from Cait's point of view, has to rely on the remarkable, almost wordless performance of 12-year-old Catherine Clinch, to transmit her every mood. Despite having never acted in front of the camera before, her gentle, wide-eyed face conveys everything we need to know, including anxieties she scarcely comprehends herself.
Cait, who is perhaps nine or 10, has been despatched to spend the summer with her mother's cousin and husband in their farm by the sea, while her overworked mother prepares to give birth to her sixth child, leaving Cait's sullen older sisters at home. She is under-nourished, withdrawn and wets the bed, and is ignored and struggling at school. Her bad-tempered, narcissistic, usually drunk father (Michael Patric), who will only speak English, has gambled away the heifer and can't afford to hire men to bring in the hay on their unkempt smallholding, drives her to the well-kept house and prosperous farm of older, childless couple Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) and Sean (Andrew Bennett). His resentment and lack of civility are subtly conveyed in an incident concerning a gift of home-grown rhubarb. In his haste to get away, he drives off with Cait's suitcase still in the boot.
We sense Cait's unease in every slight gesture and forced smile. She has had no contact with the couple since she was a baby and has no idea of how long she is to stay with them, though quoting her mother she tells Eibhlin: 'You can have me as long as you like'. Her father has also given her new carers permission to 'work her'.
It soon becomes clear that though Sean is at first reticent with the girl, they both want a child in the house very much. In a rare scene that is not in the book, he briefly loses his temper when she wanders off one day on the farm, but that evening, when he says a gruff goodnight, the camera catches a brief look of regret on his face, shot in profile, just after she has left the room. It is a lovely moment, matched the next morning when in a conciliatory gesture he leaves a Kimberley biscuit on the table before going out. The look of amazement on Cait's face when she finds it is as though she is being offered the sun on a plate.
Through a gorgeous montage of brief moments – washing away the congealed dirt on her body in a warm bath, brushing her hair counting to a hundred, chopping onions, trips to a well – we witness Cait's transformation from discarded mouth-to-feed to wanted foster daughter. For the first time in her life, she experiences consistent love and kindness.
Director of photography Kate McCullough's unhurried camerawork and naturalistic cinematography capture Cait emerging from yellow doorways bathed in limpid light into slow-motion capers among sun-dappled trees, without succumbing to sentimentality, while Emma Lowney's superb production design helps create a fresh, spacious world in which quiet, neglected Cait can expand and blossom.
When a nosy neighbour, a real piece of work, terrifically played by Joan Sheehy, maliciously discloses the household's tragic secret ('Is Eibhlin still drinking?') the film is too emotionally canny to allow the intrusion to shake the foundations on which the fragile new family of three rests. Instead, the revelation helps Cait and Sean to bond.
'You don't have to say anything,' Sean says to Cait, making it clear that keeping one's own counsel has value too: 'Many's the person who missed the opportunity to say nothing, and lost much because of it'. Indeed, one of the film's themes is how silence as distinct from secrecy can be as expressive as speech and absence as powerful as any presence. The film's perspective never leaves Cait's vantage point of insatiable curiosity, as McCullough's camera latches on to the small details made bigger in the eyes of a child, like the powdered milk fed to the calves so that their mother's milk can be sold to humans.
Stephen Rennicks' lovely minimalist score augments the film's sense of stillness. And, a lovely touch, the sound of a cuckoo, known to lay its eggs in the nests of other bird species, which raise its chicks, can be heard during the beginning and end credits.
The Quiet Girl
is shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, as was Limbo
(reviewed here recently), its tight square shape used there to underscore the cooped-up life of asylum seekers stranded on a remote Scottish island. Here, it works equally well, lending an intimate canvas on which to project Cate's pinched existence as it is reshaped and transformed by attentive care.
'All you needed was some minding,' says Eibhlin, an elegant, intelligent woman, quietly portrayed by Carrie Crowley with, says Ryan Gilbey, the 'weather-beaten regality of Geraldine James, and the same expression of hopeful concern steeling itself for disappointment'. Her response to Cait when she wets the bed is funny and life enhancing, warmly removing the sting from her mortification and playfully reframing the event.
I am glad to have seen The Quiet Girl
in a cinema, having recently streamed Celine Sciamma's equally exquisite Petite Maman
, also delicately told from a child's point of view, both films recalling Lynne Ramsay's evocation of childhood in her first feature length film, Ratcatcher
(1999). For all its smallness of scale, Bairead's unostentatious film, lacking any ghastly denouements or revelations, cries out to be seen on the big screen.
The Quiet Girl
tells its story of care and neglect with grace and a rare generosity of spirit. It is a film of small gestures and moments, subtly edited with great precision by the talented John Murphy. Richard Ford's evaluation of Claire Keegan's novella – 'a high wire act of uncommon narrative virtuosity' – applies equally to the film inspired by it. Read the book and see the film, not necessarily in that order.
The Quiet Girl
is available at Curzon Home Cinema
Jean Barr is Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Glasgow