You might recall one of your previous vacations in particular. You’d go back to that place with a similar atmosphere. That’s the memory you cherish more than any other day. You’ve probably heard the expression “home is where your heart is.”
Because it is a temporary escape, remembering your vacation as a home can be a false alarm. However, under certain conditions, a vacation can become a true home away from home that you never want to leave. This is the subject of Colm Bairéad’s debut feature film, The Quiet Girl, which was released in February 2022. This film is an adaptation of Claire Keegan’s novella, Foster. Previously, the director was involved in several short films and documentaries.
This wide-screen adaptation quickly broke several records. The Quiet Girl has surpassed previous record holder Arracht to become the highest-grossing Irish-language film. In cinema audience recognition, it has received the most nominations at the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards.
The Quiet Girl is a quiet coming-of-age drama, as the title suggests. It takes place in 1981 in the peaceful Irish countryside. That appears to imply that not much will happen in the story. Or is it the other way around? And everything revolves around the house. The premise is simple: a child finds a home and parents who differ completely from anyone she has ever met.
When her mother becomes pregnant again, the quiet 9-year-old girl, Cáit, is taken to the home of the middle-aged couple, Eibhlín and Seán Cinnsealach, for a vacation. Before that, we are treated to a few things. Cáit is not fluent in Gaelic as a student. She is also shunned by her peers and often finds herself alone in the weeds. There is no warm and intimate relationship between her and her siblings, mother, and father, who is portrayed as a drunken figure who is only present at home. The father is still shown picking up Cáit from school, but with a quick stop at the pub for a few pints of beer. And whenever his figure appears, his children cut off their conversation with an edgy look that seems to shout, “This is an unhappy family.” The details in The Quiet Girl are subtly rendered to imply that something is creeping up behind her.
Cáit gradually discovers her family on the Cinnsealach family farm. From the start, Eibhlín develops into a warm mother figure. Cáit, who is filthy, is bathed and invited to work in the kitchen, while Seán remains a distant figure. Who would have guessed that Cáit’s warm relationship with the mother figure would pave the way for her relationship with Seán as a father figure?
Silence is always displayed when both are on the same screen screaming for tension that words cannot convey. Until Seán’s slight gestures show signs of affection when the two of them work together on the farm. We gradually discover why Seán has such a distant demeanor. After the death of his own son, Seán is not at all prepared to love his cousin’s daughter when his wife naturally becomes a mother figure for Cáit.
Director Bairéad takes an unusual approach to explore relationships and exposes a reluctance to open up to new people. Seán, for example, assigns Cáit to run for the mail. We can accept the faster run as a symbol of their closer relationship. Another example is the scene in which Cáit must return home. Eibhln’s face tells us she is heartbroken at that point. Seán simply exits the room saying nothing. Again, we are treated to the simple gesture that he is equally, if not more, heartbroken.
Silence has power, and it is used as the key element here. The silence of the countryside and the picture frames that are always pleasing to the eye are among the beauties. The absence of dialogue is often more important than busy words. The Quiet Girl stays true to its narrative style, with its silence narrowing to Seán’s words to Cáit: Many people miss the opportunity to say nothing and lose a lot.
Among the many emotions suppressed almost throughout The Quiet Girl, new emotional seeds sprout near the end of the story. At the end of the film, there is even a new laugh. And Cáit’s new look in a cute dress is much brighter than her arrival.
Meanwhile, audiences who are encouraged to sympathize with her may notice other changes that are not visible to the naked eye. Cáit is most likely the same quiet girl who now appears much more alive. Her proper home no longer feels like her home. She wipes the dust from the dining table as if she’s in the wrong place.
What is the conclusion? Although the packaging is still simple, the effects are immeasurable. When Cáit sees Seán and says “daddy,” all previously suppressed emotions are released. She buries her face in Seán’s shoulder and says “daddy” again. Like a not-so-relief explosion.
I’m one of the few people in the audience who don’t feel relieved entirely when The Quiet Girl ends. Especially after meeting a sympathetic character who connects with us and whose lack of luck causes us to hit. I stayed until I found Claire Keegan’s statement: At which point I felt the story was finished, and I believed that every story was finished by the reader, not the writer. The story ends just as Cáit calls Seán her father, and the Cinnsealach family loses their child for the second time.
Director Colm Bairéad faithfully recreates Keegan’s novella with no changes. He could capture and translate the nature and atmosphere of the story. There are other, equally important factors at work. The three actors with the most screen time have very impressive acting roles. Especially Catherine Clinch, who in her acting debut sometimes makes us forget she is just a kid who is curious and full of questions and never feels like she has a place to call home. Cáit is just as charming when she speaks, and her silence fits perfectly into a story that relies on her performance as the main character. So it’s not an exaggeration to say Clinch will become well-known in the future.
Stephen Rennicks' ambient and minimalist musical compositions accompanied the sound of The Quiet Girl. The composer, who also worked on Room and the slick music in Frank, keeps the film quiet and atmospheric.
The Quiet Girl may not be for those who dislike slow films that are full of silence, melancholy, or whatever else has been mentioned above. However, I believe its presence adds to the list of charming filmmaking for small, simple, and personal stories. The authors of the Irish-best-films list appear to be rearranging their articles. It’s no surprise that those who enjoy making the annual best film lists get dizzy.
The Quiet Girl, Brooklyn, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and Sing Street are also worthy of promotion for Ireland. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it received international acclaim in the same way that the Cartoon Saloon films did. It didn’t take long for The Quiet Girl to deliver an imprinted drama with a distinct atmosphere. A film whose plot is predictable but whose delivery is evocative. This is an outstanding example of storytelling.