Oh dear. There were tears before bedtime watching The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), an Irish-language film set in the 1980s and all about a girl whose parents send her off to live with a distant cousin on a remote farm.
Mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is overburdened with kids. Dad (Michael Patric) is a feckless womanising boozer, and young Cáit (Catherine Clinch), not fitting in too well at school, has become a handful. And so, without being consulted, Cáit is shipped off for the school summer holidays in what might be a dry run for something more permanent.
It looks like the set-up for one of those misery memoirs à la Angela’s Ashes, a genre so associated with the Gaelic-speakers of Ireland that as long ago as 1941 Flann O’Brien (real name Brian Nolan, but writing, confusingly, as Myle na gCopaleen) was satirising it in his comic novel The Poor Mouth – a book full of personal disaster, worn as a badge of authenticity by the Irish, or so O’Brien’s (very funny) novel would have it.
Instead, writer/director Colm Bairéad elegantly wrongfoots his audience. When Cáit gets to the farmstead, what she finds is a quiet house and childless couple. Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) is the milk of human kindness and all motherly concern for this dirty-legged waif. Seán (Andrew Bennett) is a taciturn man who might not like be as wholeheartedly in favour of Cáit being there as Eiblhlín, or so it seems at first.
There is a back story here, which Bairéad will get to in good time. There are other little areas of friction that give The Quiet Girl its dramatic tug and stop it from being merely a wallow. Which is useful because for the most part Bairéad gives us an idyll – the sun is always shining, the house is clean and nice, there is crystal-clear cinematography by Kate McCullough, and a score by Stephen Rennicks that warbles and burbles sympathetically, plus supporting performances by actors who conform to a comforting idea of Irishness without straying too far into caricature. When Eibhlín and Cáit go to the well for the first time the water in it looks deep and cool and pure.
Cáit has escaped from a household that had no time for her. The almost silent girl very slowly, very gently blossoms. She stops wetting the bed. She starts to look clean and sleek. But what will happen when the school holiday ends? Back to mum, dad and careless neglect? Intriguingly, the better it goes for Cáit during the holidays, the bigger the upcoming bump in the road starts to look.
The Quiet Girl is a quiet film thematically and stylistically like one by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It tells a story of a chosen family, of relationships developing that are precarious but precious, and it does it with an intense focus on small details and by drawing affecting performances out of its actors.
In one very quiet scene Cáit and Séan are eating lunch together at the kitchen table. Neither speaks – and we’re still not sure why Séan never really addresses Cáit or properly looks her in the eye – but when he picks up his sandwich to eat it, so does she. When he flips back the top slice of bread to see what’s in it, she does the same.
The Quiet Girl is the highest grossing Irish language movie of all time, and while that list can’t be too long, it is easy to see why. It has a story to tell and it tells it with real skill but with emotion so pared back that when it finally does come it hits like a punch in the guts.
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