Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin), based on a short story by Claire Keegan, is a beautiful film, as intense as it is languorous. It’s a simple story, elegantly told. The titular girl is Cáit (Catherine Clinch), and she’s quiet in many ways: tongue-tied, illiterate, watchful, an outsider. When we first see her, she’s hiding – in a field and then under her bed. She seems choked with secrets and longing, simultaneously yearning to be seen and to disappear.
Her home life is one of poverty and neglect. The house is full of children, and there’s another on the way. Her Mam (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is exhausted; her Da (Michael Patric) is a wastrel, gambling their meagre income and failing to do any work. He spends his time, predictably, with other women or in the pub, and Cáit’s mistrust of him is palpable. Is he abusive in other ways?
The kids at school call Cáit a weirdo, so it’s no surprise she wants to run away. And it’s no surprise to us that Mam can’t cope, and packs her off to spend the summer with some distant relatives – although it’s certainly a shock to Cáit, who isn’t told anything about where she’s going, before being bundled into Da’s car.
But her banishment proves her salvation, and – under Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett)’s gentle care and tutelage – Cáit blossoms. The healing is a two-way process: these stand-in grandparents have their own sorrow, evident in the carefully preserved child’s bedroom Cáit sleeps in, with its train wallpaper and wardrobe full of ‘just the right size’ clothes. Bairéad captures the sense of endlessness that comes with the long school holidays, while cinematographer Kate McCullough bathes the Irish countryside in a golden glow, making this month of respite seem like a whole new life.
There’s a raft of narratives out there that plumb the same notion: a single summer that shapes a person’s life – Willy Russell’s One Summer, Noel Streatfeild’s The Growing Summer, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, to name but a few (in fact, Heidi features as a bedtime story here, although – of course – her tale is the reverse of Cáit’s). But this Irish-language film stands out, perhaps because of Clinch’s heartbreaking performance – you can almost feel her aching with loneliness and love. Despite the overt simplicity of the tale, there’s a lot to uncover.
With an Oscar nomination for best international feature, The Quiet Girl seems destined to make a lot of noise.