Why do we have children? Cait’s Mam and Da would be hard-pressed to answer that, with a house full of sour teenage daughters, a toddler barely walking, another baby about to land and not enough money to pay a day laborer to bring in the hay. These are the kind of kids who go to school with no lunch.
With The Quiet Girl, Ireland’s entry for the Best International Feature Oscar, we are apparently in the late 1960s. As her family’s middle child, Cait (Catherine Clinch) has learned to be silently wary, lowering her eyes as she walks by the school bullies and fading into the back seat of her father’s car when he picks up his fancy woman in the middle of nowhere on a country road, snickering with her as they drive along with no one to see them. No one who counts, that is.
When Cait is sent to stay with her mother’s cousin Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) on the far coast of Ireland for the summer, she wears her usual set expression of endurance; her dilapidated family has surely just found one more way to neglect her. She has no more idea what to do with Eibhlin Kinsella’s kindness than she does with a hot bath: both are outside her experience. Which of these treats is she allowed to talk about? There are no secrets in this house, Eibhlin tells her. If there are secrets in a house, there is shame. She wants no shame in her house.
But there are other kinds of secrecy: a sorrow that is simply too great to be spoken, for example. Arriving with only the cotton dress she is wearing, Cait wears the child’s trousers and jumpers already in the wardrobe of her room. The clothes of a boy, never mentioned. Then Eibhlin’s husband Sean (Andrew Bennett), gruff and initially clearly reluctant to take on this strange, silent girl, says she can’t keep going to Mass like that and insists they go shopping.
By the time she appears in her new crochet poncho, Sean has warmed to this girl who willingly helps muck out the barns with him, who raises a smile for the first time when he times her running to the letterbox and pronounces her “a gust of wind,” who doesn’t waste words. They are kindred spirits, who can communicate worlds with just the offer of a cookie.
Writer/director Colm Bairead works on a miniature canvas in his debut feature, using the lilt of the Irish language and expressive shots of fastidiously chosen details in the home to deliver an emotional punch much heftier than one might expect of a sliver of domestic drama. Based on Foster, a 2010 short story by the superb Irish writer Claire Keegan (whose most recent novella, Small Things, was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize), it is paced to chime with Stephen Rennick’s mournful score: a slow, loping, lyrical musicality.
Normal People cinematographer Kate McCullough films the two families – Cait’s sprawling clan and the couple who give her refuge – as if we were following them through the rooms of their respective houses, often shooting through doorways or around corners. We sometimes see the Kinsellas with Cait in silhouette by a window, the garden beyond drenched in sunshine, dense figures against the colors of life. The kitchen is always bright, however: it is the beating heart of their modestly comfortable home, painted pale yellow. Frequent tight close-ups give equal weight to a bucket of pure spring water or a few stems of rhubarb and Cait’s strained face: all are facets of the same picture, rendered with the hair’s-breadth exactness of a Vermeer.
Each actor conveys not merely a character, but generations of pain from their few lines of dialogue and a couple of glances. We barely encounter Maire (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) Cait’s mammy who can’t cut her children’s lunches because there’s no bread to cut, but by the final scene, seeing her with the new child, we feel we know her. Her Da (Michael Patric) says almost nothing to his quiet girl, but his lie to his wife’s cousin about how much hay he has stacked in the barn tells us something poignant, true and despicable about his fecklessness and somehow, without showing a thing, suggests a latent violence.
Meanwhile Catherine Clinch, who was 12 when the film was shot, is simply everything. This is filmmaking at its most alchemical, turning every ingredient to gold – even if it is green, the vivid color of the lush trees everywhere on the Kinsellas’ farm, that is the color lingering behind your eyelids as the credits roll.
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