THE QUIET GIRL (An Cailín Ciúin)

Producer: Cleona Ní Chrualaoi    Director: Colm Bairéad   Screenplay: Colm Bairéad   Cast: Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Catherine Clinch, Michael Patric, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh and Joan Sheehy   Distributor: Super/Neon

Grade: A-

The first fiction feature by documentary filmmaker Colm Bairéad is a lovely, gentle period tale of a young Irish girl who finds the affection her fractious family have never provided during a summer’s idyll with distant relatives.  Set in the early eighties and based on the 2010 novella “Foster” by Claire Keegan (a shortened version of which was published that year in The New Yorker), “The Quiet Girl” is beautifully restrained yet emotionally resonant, the sort of cinematic poem that has an almost ethereal effect.

Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is a nine-year old whose reticent, solitary ways set her apart not only from her brother and three sisters but her classmates, who think her weird, and her teacher, who considers her slow.  Her father (Michael Patric) is a loutish layabout who drinks too much and can be abusive, while her harried mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is pregnant again and overwhelmed by it all.

That’s what induces her to ask an older cousin, Eibhlín Kinsella (Carrie Crowley) to take Cáit for the summer, a proposal to which Eibhlin’s gruff husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) agrees.  The couple own a dairy farm some distance away, and when her father deposits the girl there, he neglects even to leave her suitcase.

No problem, as far as Eibhlin is concerned; there are children’s clothes in the closet of the room Cáit’s given, though Seán insists that they take her to town to buy some new dresses.  Eibhlin is maternal in the best sense, tending to the girl and inviting her to help in the housework.  Seán initially appears standoffish, but bonds with Cáit in modest gestures of concern, as well as larger acts of encouragement, as when he urges her to develop her skill as a runner by timing her as she sprints to and from the mailbox down the lane—an activity that allows her a rare sense of freedom and spontaneity. 

Seán’s also frantic when she wanders off into the fields, as she often did back home. His reaction is tied to a tragedy the Kinsellas suffered prior to Cáit’s arrival; the particulars emerge slowly and won’t be revealed here, but they’re hardly difficult to intuit—this is hardly a mystery in any conventional sense.  But what happened becomes clearer when Úna (Joan Sheehy), a nosy neighbor, seizes on an opportunity to be alone with Cáit and quiz the child about how the Kinsellas are “getting along.”  The woman’s spiteful attitude reminds us of the undercurrent of malice present in even the most ostensibly benign places.

Summer passes, of course, and with the approach of fall the girl’s stay with Eibhlin and Seán will inevitably end.  Her return from the warmth of a caring home to the grimness of the one where she was treated shabbily reveals the pain felt on both sides as she has to face leaving the “fosters” she’s come to regard as true parents, and they in turn have to accept separation from the child they took so completely into their hearts.  Even here, though, Bairéad resists the invitation to slide into mawkishness; while he doesn’t ignore the emotional currents of the parting, he plays what might have been a saccharine scene with unforced, becoming simplicity.

That applies equally to Clinch, who gives a wonderfully unaffected, inward performance as the girl becoming aware that kindness is not impossible amid the harshness of the world.  Crowley impeccably embodies a deeply sad and deeply compassionate woman and Bennett a man whose no-nonsense exterior conceals an expansive heart, their lonely but welcoming home providing a poignant oasis from the raucously hostile environment Cáit has long eneavored to escape through her wandering; by contrast Patric and Chonaonaigh make the girl’s mother and father unpleasant without turning them into cartoonishly Dickensian villains.  The supporting cast provide a wealth of local color, with Sheehy a standout as the sort of unctuous gossip who shows her true colors when she deems it safe to do so; a brief moment with her crone of a mother reveals everything necessary to understand her.

Cinematographer Kate McCullough uses the boxy 4.3 aspect ratio to create a sense of intimacy that applies both to the cluttered, oppressive feel of the early scenes at Cáit’s home and the warmth of the Kinsella farm, the shades of lighting, from dank to luminous, also contributing to the differing moods.  Emma Lowney’s production design and Louise Stanton’s costumes bring a degree of timelessness to the images, reinforced by Stephen Rennnicks’ lovely score.  John Murphy’s editing maintains a steady, stately rhythm throughout, but the fact that most of the dialogue is in Irish adds an extra lilt to the narrative.   

This is a lovely, touching little film that says more through hushed understatement than most do with frenzied melodramatic excess.