In Irish Drama ‘The Quiet Girl,’ There Is Strength in Silence

A 10-year-old girl experiences love and compassion in a family environment for the first time in “The Quiet Girl,” the first film from Ireland to be nominated in the international feature category at the Academy Awards. Gifted newcomer Catherine Clinch plays the title character, Cáit, one of four daughters in a crowded household who retreats inside of herself as a coping mechanism. It is only after she is sent away by her parents that she is allowed to flourish in a safe environment.

To some, it may seem strange to see an Irish film nominated for a foreign language film award, since English is the primary language spoken in Ireland. However, the Irish language, or Gaelic, was the dominant language in that country for much of its history; its use has been on the decline since the Great Famine. Now, it is rarely spoken outside of classrooms. “The Quiet Girl” writer-director Colm Bairéad, the son of a linguist, is one of those who is working to keep the Irish language alive, and his moving drama, which is based on Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster,” uses the language to transport the view to a world that is simpler than what most of us are used to, but also complex.

“The Quiet Girl” takes place in 1981, but it might as well be 1951, as it is set in such a rural part of the world that fashions are years behind and there are almost no pop culture references, save for brief clips of Irish television programs. This is still a time and place where Irish is spoken as a first language, although most characters appear to be bilingual. Cáit is neglected at home by her poor farmer parents, and her heavily pregnant mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) gets little help from her alcoholic, philandering husband (Michael Patric). School is not a safe space for her either, as she’s ridiculed for being different. Her quiet nature makes her a keen observer, and the viewer picks up on a great deal seeing the world around her through her eyes.

Figuring having one less mouth to feed would lighten their load, Cáit’s parents send her to live with a pair of cousins she’s ever met who live three hours away, a couple in their fifties, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett). Almost immediately upon the arrival of this kid and her father on their doorstep, they realize this is a neglected child, and their hearts open up to her. Dear old Dad forgets to bring in her suitcase, so Eibhlín dresses Cáit in outfits they have in their home: jeans, flannel shirts, and other warm clothes that seem suitable for her helping out on their farm. The fact that they have clothes her size does not seem to be that important of a detail until later on. 

As Cáit is not used to being treated with such warmth and kindness, it is easy for her to feel secure in her new home, and Eibhlín and Seán prove to her and the viewer quickly that they are decent, safe adults. Bairéad does a great job of slowly introducing tension from the outside world. First, Seán tells Eibhlín she must take Cáit into town to purchase her new dresses, otherwise people in church will start to talk. Later, Cáit has an unpleasant experience when she is left alone with the local busybody. Then, there’s dread in the air as the summer comes to a close.

At heart of “The Quiet Girl” is Cáit’s relationship with Seán, whom she helps out daily with light chores around the farm. Although he does not have any blood ties to her (Eibhlín is Cáit’s mother’s cousin), Seán, who is not much of a talker himself, helps this emotionally wounded child out of her shell, ensuring that she flourishes under his and his wife’s care. To others, Cáit’s quiet nature makes her seem strange or slow, but Seán sees her silence as being a form of strength, especially when compared to someone like the aforementioned busybody, who chatters out of insecurity and spreads hurtful gossip.

Bairéad, along with cinematographer Kate McCullogh, does a beautiful job of creating a world that is calm and tranquil through Cáit’s eyes, but there is also an air of mystery. While there is nothing sinister going on at Eibhlín and Seán’s, there is some kind of cloud over the couple’s heads that Cáit’s presence helps clear up, proving that they need her almost as much as she needs them.

The Quiet Girl” releases Feb. 24 in select theaters.