31 May 2023

A summer of joy tinged by fear of end

Catherine Clinch in The Quiet Girl. Picture: Curzon.

By Tim Kroenert 

16 September 2022

Colm Bairéad’s lyrical Gaelic-language film The Quiet Girl unearths great emotional complexity from a relatively simple premise.  

In the summer of 1981, introverted young girl Cáit (Catherin Clinch) is sent by her neglectful and impoverished parents to stay with her mother’s “people”, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett), while her mother goes through the late stages of a pregnancy. Here on her relatives’ idyllic dairy farm, the wide-eyed child comes to better understand herself, her relationship to the world, and the rather more complicated relationships that exist among adults and the people in their care. 

The film is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. Bairéad employs colour and light, sound and visual composition to describe with poetic precision the emotional state and inner life of Cáit. Her own dysfunctional family home is crowded with shadows, dirty yellows and chaotic browns. By contrast Eibhlín and Seán’s house, which becomes a place of solace, is an array of solid pastels and clean white light.  

The film’s narrow, almost square aspect ratio accentuates the orderly vertical lines of the interiors here, and the height of the trees and sky outside. These tower magnificently, like Cáit’s sense of wonder and untapped potential. 

Within such evocative spaces the human drama plays out with an economy of words and a cacophony of emotional import. True to the title, “quiet girl” Cáit says little, but Clinch’s performance speaks volumes through captivatingly detailed facial and physical expression.  

From Eibhlín she finds a form of physical nurture and care unlike any she has known. Eibhlín gently scrubs her toes in a warm bath, and methodically counts 100 brushstrokes to revive her tangled hair. Seán takes a little longer to warm to her but eventually provides a different kind of nurture, engaging her in physical tasks on the farm that are their own kind of play. 

Early in her stay, Eibhlín promises Cáit there are no secrets in this house. Yet the child’s clothes that hang long-unused in a closet upstairs put the lie to that claim, as eventually do the words of a gossiping neighbour. Gradually Cáit comes to learn she has as much to offer these de facto parents as they do to her.  

Along the way there are moments of devastation, breathless tension and unbridled joy. This summer holds more life for Cáit, and for Eibhlín and Seán, than they have yet experienced. Still the film leaves unanswered potent questions about the future. Can this happy present be sustained, or will the ugly past reassert itself? 

Screening at Cinema Nova. 

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