Gentle Irish drama ‘The Quiet Girl’ weaves its spell carefully, with compassion
It’s 1981 in rural County Waterford, Ireland, where some families speak the Irish Gaelic language at home and milk cows are a perfectly apt topic of dinnertime conversation. In Colm Bairéad’s remarkable new drama, The Quiet Girl, there’s a new face at the dinner table across from Eileen and Seán Kinsella—nine-year-old Cáit, a lovely whisper of a girl played by first-time actor Catherine Clinch. They don’t know exactly what to make of Cáit at first, but she’s here to stay, for a year.
How Cáit came to live with her aunt and uncle—Eileen is the cousin of Cáit’s mother—is etched into the opening scenes. There’s no time nor money at home to take care of Cáit or her siblings properly. Her father, Dan (Michael Patric), is a careless, drunken fool—described by his daughters as a “feckin’ piss-pants”—who’d rather lose money on football bets or at the track than do the chores at their farm. And poor bedraggled Mam (mom) Mary (actor Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) doesn’t look well—she’s expecting another baby, one more mouth to feed.
Many mornings, Cáit and her sisters are off to school in unwashed clothes and with no lunch packed for them. In her meek way, Cáit accepts the state of things without complaining. When she wants to escape, she hides in the tall grass of an unmown paddock—the first time the camera catches her there, motionless, she might as well be a corpse.
So when the neglected daughter gets packed off to stay with the family Cinnsealach—that’s the family name Kinsella, in Irish—she’s a stranger to them, and they to her. But there’s something in her auntie Eibhlín’s—that is, Eileen’s—calm, warm expression that’s hard to put into words, especially for the lonely girl. Eileen (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennet) are just as shy and quiet as the girl herself.
When useless Dan hurriedly drives away without unloading Cáit’s suitcase, Eileen digs out some spare clothes, a boy’s jeans and shirt, for her to put on—there’s a story about those clothes, waiting to come out. The whole time Cáit and the Kinsellas are getting to know each other, there’s an unspoken feeling of care, and love, in the air between them. When it comes to daily life, all their conversations are in Irish Gaelic.
The Irish language is practically unpronounceable for contemporary American tongues, but to any ears, anywhere it’s a thing of rare beauty to hear. With the soft vowel sounds and the rippling consonants like a peaceful brook on a drowsy summer day, it’s a language in which seemingly even the most urgent information is tucked into an unselfconscious flow of what can be called folk poetry. Cáit and her aunt and uncle wrap themselves in the Irish tongue.
It’s the language of gooseberry pie and a hot cup of tea, of getting tucked into bed at night, of helping Uncle Seán care for the cows, of stories about a deep pool of pure water in the forest, of fishermen’s tales of a horse found floating in the ocean. And also it’s the language of going into Waterford town—on the coast of the Celtic Sea in southeastern Ireland—to buy Cáit a whole new set of clothes to wear to church, to show her she’s a treasured member of the family, “good as gold.”
An Cailín Ciúin—the film’s Irish title—isn’t the ordinary type of “feel-good” flick, packaged and processed, that hits audiences over the head with musical cues and soppy speeches. The best strategy for experiencing the quiet colleen’s story is to slow down, watch and listen. Writer-director Bairéad (pronounced Barrett), who might have learned how to shoot a landscape from watching the Hollywood westerns of John Ford (aka Sean O’Feeney or Seán O Fearna), beguiles the audience into seeing Cáit’s life unfold as she does. Relax, and let it charm.