Monday, May 09, 2022

An Cailín Ciúin / The Quiet Girl – a story of summer blossoming in rural 1980s Ireland (QFT Friday 13–Thursday 19 May)

Cáit is alone in the middle of an already crowded and noisy household that is about to welcome another mouth to feed. She’s a middle child who is neglected at home, and lacks confidence and is withdrawn in school. When a family cousin agrees to take her in for the summer, she’s bundled off to live some three hours’ drive away with two older strangers who last saw her as a baby, without so much as a hug or a tear. In fact, her excuse for a father (Michael Patric) – his only skill seems to be that his virility isn’t affected by his heavy drinking – drives home forgetting that his Cáit’s small suitcase of clothes is still in the car boot.

“There are no secrets in this house” says her vacation mother figure Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley), repeating it in case no one viewing An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) has noticed the red flag being hoisted up the plot flagpole. Cáit has swapped one farm holding for another, gained an attentive and tender maternal figure, but retained a somewhat distant male (Andrew Bennett). Yet Seán’s standoffishness thaws as he wrestles with the couple’s own demons and begins to enjoy his new capable and willing farm hand. Meanwhile, the gentle enigma of whether Cáit’s mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) engineered this summer retreat to rescue her daughter is hinted at, but like much in this film, does not need to be resolved for the film to make its impact.

Adapted from Claire Keegan’s short story Foster, director Colm Bairéad gives the 1981 rural Irish tale space to breathe. Much is said, but little is spoken … that is until a nosy parker of a neighbour stage manages an opportunity to interrogate young Cáit and lets a few skeletons spill out of the closet.

First as something of an urchin, then as a shy girl soaking in the love and attention, and finally as a young person who is now much more aware of what she’d like out of life, Catherine Clinch is brilliant in the role of Cáit. There’s a solid assurance in this screen début that allows Kate McCullough’s lingering shots to capture the visible evolution of the central character’s maturity.

Conversations between characters gently switch between Irish and English, which reminded me of the observation that some County Antrim farmers were said to speak broad Ulster Scots to people who came in the back door, but would revert to a posher English dialect when anyone rang the front doorbell. The use of language may have a deep significance to the meaning of the film, but if it has, it’s underdeveloped and sunk as deep as whatever lies at the bottom of the farm’s fresh water well that Cáit stares into.

At one level, An Cailín Ciúin is a study of neglect and of a state that is disinterested in the welfare of children. It’s also a story about solitude, loss and love. The cinematography emphasises looking from afar, peering through half-closed doors, characters vanishing from sight. While there are few surprises in the storytelling, the unhurried pace and the incredible performance from Clinch over the previous ninety minutes give the final scene an unexpected emotional charge.

An Cailín Ciúin is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 13 until Thursday 19 May.  

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