“This is a movie that positively radiates with glowing warm-heartedness, but it does so with subtlety. It’s ready for you to engage with it, rather than announce itself to you.”
by Ken Bakely
For most of Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl, we are extraordinarily attuned to individual interactions and observations – moments – that take the place of forced grand, sweeping conclusions. That’s very well and good, since this is a story that is, for all intents and purposes, told from the view of its child protagonist, and in our childhood memories, it can be the tiniest things – how water reflects in a well, how light streams through the curtains – that stay with us. Bairéad’s seamless ability to hone in on things in an organic way speaks to the attentiveness he brings to the rest of this story. Set in Ireland in the summer of 1981, Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is trapped in an uncaring family home, where she is all but lost in the noise of a hardscrabble home with many siblings. With another one on the way, her parents (Michael Patric and Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) temporarily send her to live with relatives out in the country. Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett) are a middle-aged couple who live on a farm; while Seán seems a bit standoffish and cold, Eibhlín treats Cáit with loving care and attention from the start, something so foreign to her that she initially doesn’t know how to process it. It is within this realm that she will be able to live with the kind of genuine possibility that she has never before known. The film follows her over the summer that follows, as she explores her new surroundings – physical and emotional – learning about life on the farm and who her new caregivers are.
That is the focus at the center of The Quiet Girl: the journeys of discovery and realization that come together, piece by piece, in this new setting. This is a movie that positively radiates with glowing warm-heartedness, but it does so with subtlety. It’s ready for you to engage with it, rather than announce itself to you. Bairéad, who directs from his script – based on the short story “Foster” by Claire Keegan – is steadfast in his quest for the larger meanings and connections in the tiniest events, and how it affects Cáit. He has found an outstanding actor to do so. Catherine Clinch is simply marvelous in the lead role, so attuned to the details – the astonishment of this new setting and the soft grief of realizing the love that she doesn’t have at home – and how this changes her character. Alongside her, Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett are strong as Eibhlín and Seán. Under the surface, there is always a bit more to them than they want to show. Seán might externalize this journey more in personality, as we learn their history and what might make him initially reluctant to embrace Cáit, but that’s not to say it isn’t mutually present. Crowley and Bennett present complex and tentative interpretations that are, by turns, warmly and wrenchingly realized.
Though The Quiet Girl has a particular, exact perspective, there are also moments when it indicates a larger and more layered portrait that might be about to jump out. It has the material and the soul to do so, but – save for a few crucial scenes – holds itself reflective and close. There are times when this can play against it: because it is so zoomed-in, so about the immediacy of this existence rather than the peripherals, it does struggle a bit to fill the spaces of a feature length movie on a scene-to-scene basis. And yet, its understanding of Cáit is so rich that it can never lose focus. Though one can yearn to learn a little bit more about Eibhlín and Seán, for instance, it’s not as if the movie doesn’t have the extraordinarily deft gracefulness and empathy to sweep the viewer along and earn the emotions which come swelling in the end. Without going into any further detail, it is the attentive nature of the film which sells a finale that might seem abrupt at first glance. If you understand that this is a movie about what Cáit learns – about other people, about goodness and caring, and about herself and what she can become in this setting – then it all makes sense. Bairéad presides over everything that is happening in his film with searching, almost atomic levels of intuition. As a director, he exudes a deep sense of vision that brings the intense emotionality of the writing to life in ways that emphasize its magisterial scope, but do so with a quiet and wise spirit that rings with the same sort of nuanced but flowing kindness that is so capably depicted onscreen.