The parcel: Rural Ireland, early 1980s. Cait (Catherine Clinch) is something of an unloved child. Her mother doesn’t spend much time with her, too busy with her new baby coming. Her father cares even less, dismissing her as a child who will eat someone out of the house and out of the house. That’s why she’s gone to stay with her aunt Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) and her gruff farmer husband Sean (Andrew Bennett) for the summer. A quiet girl, she is not used to having the attention of adults. Eibhlin immediately picks her up and welcomes her into the house. She and eventually Sean make him discover new things and a different and more open way of life…
The verdict: This doesn’t happen very often with movies, but it certainly did with the latest Irish language feature to hit theaters – An Cailin Ciuin / The Quiet Girl. In just the first few minutes, it becomes as clear as the summer sun that the audience is onto something quite special. It’s a rare feat not only for a director making his feature film debut, but also for his young female lead who had taken acting lessons but had never been in front of a camera before. It’s that sense of a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t try to be anything other than that. It remains within its parameters of a young girl discovering what it means to be a child again, but also reconnecting with the adults she seeks out for guidance. Within its beautiful simplicity lies its layered complexity in depicting adult-child relationships in their various guises, while subtly breaking your heart in an unsentimental way.
It is based on Claire Keegan’s short story Foster, adapted here by director Colm Bairead. The short story format is ideal for this particular story and its on-screen delivery, given that there isn’t much plot or backstory to fill in the blanks. Like its origins, the film is a compressed view of a space in time. It’s an idyllic childhood summer in rural Ireland that passes too quickly and with the gnawing fear of school and therefore normalcy returning in time. With the exception of Cait, normalcy means going back to her parents – it’s not a welcome prospect. Bairead removes dialogue and focuses on small moments that fill in the gaps between Cait and her temporary caretakers — toes rubbed in a bath, a cookie left on a table, a moonlit conversation about the magic of the sea. are those small but meaningful moments that add up to something cathartic for these three characters. Cait heals them as much as they heal her. She sees the adult world through the eyes of a child, but finds that human connection that has been denied her until now.
What’s really striking about this rather charming film is the unsaid between the characters, especially when it comes to Cait’s parents. Like Celine Sciamma’s recent film Petite Maman, it demands a certain level of audience involvement as it draws them deeper into its story and relies more on performance and direction to sell its tender narrative. With that in mind, young Catherine Clinch is something of a revelation here. In her performance, there is a wisdom behind those moving eyes, a child crying quietly inside waiting for an adult’s validation. A child needs love and belonging to grow, just like a plant needs sun and water. This is ultimately the message of the film. Bairead isn’t trying to rock the boat or get into a parental arm-wrestling battle over Cait — leave that for the Hollywood version. One of the film’s most effective lines comes from Eibhlin (an excellent Carrie Crowley), as she whispers to a sleeping Cait that if she were her mother, she wouldn’t send Cait to a house of strangers. In effect. An Cailin Ciuin is therefore something of a quiet wonder, a film loaded with deep meaning but so elegant and subtle in its delivery that only the hardest of hearts will remain unmoved. If you only see one Irish-language film this year, it’s this one.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
A quiet wonder
In short: a quiet wonder
Directed by Colm Bairead.
With Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric.