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The Quiet Girl

Tender, affecting and resonant, and filled with wonderful performances, this Gaelic-language coming-of-age drama tells a small tale with a big impact.
By Sarah Ward
September 06, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
September 06, 2022
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When Normal People became the streaming sensation of the pandemic's early days, it made stars out of leads Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, and swiftly sparked another Sally Rooney adaptation from much of the same behind-the-scenes team. It wouldn't have been the hit it was if it hadn't proven an exercise in peering deeply, thoughtfully, lovingly and carefully, though, with that sensation stemming as much from its look as its emotion-swelling story. It should come as no surprise, then, that cinematographer Kate McCullough works the same magic on The Quiet Girl, a Gaelic-language coming-of-age film that sees the world as only a lonely, innocent, often-ignored child can. This devastatingly moving and beautiful movie also spies the pain and hardship that shapes its titular figure's world — and yes, it does so softly and with restraint, just like its titular figure, but that doesn't make the feelings it swirls up any less immense.

McCullough is just one of The Quiet Girl's key names; filmmaker Colm Bairéad, a feature first-timer who directs and adapts Claire Keegan's novella Foster, is another. His movie wouldn't be the deeply affecting affair it is without its vivid and painterly imagery — but it also wouldn't be the same without the helmer and scribe's delicate touch, which the 1981-set tale he's telling not only needs but demands. His focus: that soft-spoken nine-year-old, Cáit (newcomer Catherine Clinch), who has spent her life so far as no one's priority. With her mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Shadow Dancer) pregnant again, her father (Michael Patric, Smother) happiest drinking, gambling and womanising, and her siblings boisterously bouncing around their rural Irish home, she's accustomed to blending in and even hiding out. Then, for the summer, she's sent to her mum's older cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley, Extra Ordinary) and her dairy farmer husband Seán (Andrew Bennett, Dating Amber). Now the only child among doting guardians, she's no less hushed, but she's also loved and cared for as she's never been before.

Clinch is another of The Quiet Girl's crucial figures, courtesy of a downright exceptional and star-making performance. If you were to discover that she was a quiet girl off-screen, too, you'd instantly believe it — that's how profoundly naturalistic she is. Finding a young talent to convey so much internalised, engrained sorrow, then to slowly blossom when fondness comes her way, isn't just a case of finding a well-behaved child who welcomes the camera's presence. Clinch makes Cáit's isolation and sadness feel palpable, and largely does so without words: again, this is The Quiet Girl in name and nature alike. She makes the comfort and acceptance that her character enjoys with the instantly tender Eibhlín feel just as real, and kicks into another still-composed but also visibly appreciative gear as a bond forms with the tight-lipped Seán. Pivotally, Clinch plays Cáit like she's the only lonely girl in Ireland, but also like she's every lonely and mostly silent girl that's ever called that or any country home.

That astonishing performance, and the empathetic and absorbed gaze that beams it into the film's frames, tap into the lingering truth at the heart of this soulful picture: that overlooked and disregarded girls such as Cáit rarely receive this kind of notice on- or off-screen. The warm way that the movie surveys her life, and is truly willing to see it, is never anything less than an act of redress — and, even with dialogue sparse, The Quiet Girl screams that fact loudly. It gives the same treatment to loss, which is an unshakeable force in Eibhlín and Seán's home despite remaining unspoken. "There are no secrets in this house," Eibhlín tells Cáit, but that doesn't mean that the type of pain that defies speech doesn't haunt the place, as it does the lives lived in it. Grief, too, is usually pushed aside, but The Quiet Girl sees how it persists, dwells and gnaws even when — especially when — no one is talking about it.

The Quiet Girl, and Bairéad and McCullough with it, sees everything with attentive eyes: chaos at home, bullying at school, and uncertainty mixed with relief when Cáit cottons onto why she's taking such a long drive with her dad, for starters. It watches as the girl's summer getaway teems with promise and wonder — on the farm, in its woods, in the gleaming rainwater well, simply watching Eibhlín in the house or shadowing Seán outside — and as her relationship with her surrogate parents has the same fantastical allure. It spots the tentative curiosity that Cáit has about the train wallpaper in her new bedroom, as well as the boy's clothes she's given to wear. And, it can't avoid the gleeful gossiping-slash-interrogating by neighbour Úna (Joan Sheehy, End of Sentence), when she gets her chance to spill Eibhlín and Seán's past, and also grill their new charge about their present. 

Viewers peer on intently as well; using the Academy ratio, the almost-square frame that was once the cinematic standard, has that effect. That stylistic choice can say more than words when a character feels boxed in or trapped — see Happening and The Tragedy of Macbeth — which The Quiet Girl uses to its advantage in its earliest scenes. The tighter canvas also hones focus, which is this film's entire purpose anyway. Thanks to the straightforward but nonetheless riveting narrative, and the emotional journeys that it charts, Bairéad didn't need to restrict the movie's visuals so blatantly. The Quiet Girl would've captured its audience's undying attention anyway. But a closer look begets a closer look, both at otherwise-shunned children and at the minutiae they only start to spy themselves when their lives get cosier and kinder, yet also bigger and more assured.

When it premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival, The Quiet Girl made history as the first Gaelic-language film to compete at the prestigious event, and also won an award in the process. When it reached Irish cinemas midyear, along with those elsewhere in the UK, it broke box office records for Gaelic-language movies, too. Small things, big impact: that's this wonderfully heartrending, deeply resonant, exquisitely fleshed out feature over and over, within its poetic images and beyond.

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