The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) is the first Irish-language film to be nominated for an Oscar, representing Ireland in the Best International Feature category in this year’s 95th Academy Awards held on March 12th.
In this his debut feature, Irish director Colm Bairéad adapts Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster” in a style that’s akin to the literary source. Together with director of photography Kate McCullough (Normal People, 2020), Bairéad has created on screen a sparse and sensitive rendering of Keegan’s story, camera shots that are calm storytelling and restraints that convey emotional depth. The choice of the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio gives the feeling of a time past, like an old home video preserving a young girl’s memorable experience.
Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is sent away to spend the summer with her mother’s relatives, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán Cinnsealach (Andrew Bennett). Having lived in an impoverished household full of siblings and one more expecting, with a father who takes ‘liquid supper’ before coming home and an overburdened mother, Cáit experiences for the first time in her short stay at the Cinnsealach’s quiet and childless farm home what it means to be cared for, and towards the end, learns that keeping silent can be an act of love.
Just like Keegan’s style of using the minimal to convey much, The Quiet Girl is sparse and sensitive in its visual storytelling. Eibhlín is shown to be kind right from the beginning, Seán less so, hardly acknowledges Cáit. His reticence is nuanced though, a slight turn of his head even when he’s facing the TV and with his back to the child betrays a moment of thought, of self-reflection. Seán’s coming around is endearing, like the moment he leaves a single cookie on the table as he walks by Cáit in the kitchen. Actions speak louder than words.
In the bedroom she’s in, Cáit observes the wallpaper with train images and the boy’s clothing she now wears, as her own suitcase is still in her Da’s car trunk as he has forgotten to leave it with her in his rush to leave. She observes her new environment and the people she’s with, and gets some shocking information when a nosy neighbor spills out the Cinnsealachs’ tragic past to her.
As one who has just read Keegan’s short story and been deeply moved by her writing, I come to this review not to compare how ‘faithful’ the film adaptation is, which it is, but that how some of the ‘cinematic moments’ in the book are transposed on screen.
Writer director Bairéad has added some scenes of Cáit in school and at home at the beginning of the film, enhancing the characterization of the girl, quiet and alone, even at home. While the ponderous visual storytelling deserves praise, I do find in certain moments, Bairéad could have added just a bit more dramatic effects, not for gratuitous purpose, but to elicit a more powerful punch towards the cathartic end.
[The following contains spoiler]
Two examples I have in mind. First is when Seán decides they should stop letting the girl wear the boy’s clothes and that he’ll drive them to town to buy Cáit new clothes for herself. That’s a defining moment bringing up a painful, unspoken past, and stopping their substituting Cáit for the one they had lost. Eibhlín is picking gooseberry at the kitchen table with Cáit. Here’s the excerpt from Keegan’s story about the very moment her husband tells them to go change and get ready to go into town to buy clothes for Cáit:
The woman keeps on picking the gooseberries from the colander, stretching her hand out, but a little more slowly each time, for the next. At one point I think she will stop but she keeps on until she is finished and then she gets up and places the colander on the sink and lets out a sound I’ve never heard anyone make, and slowly goes upstairs.
That sound that the girl has ‘never heard anyone make’ is bone chilling even when I was just reading the words, and would have been a most effective cinematic moment to convey pain and grief. Unfortunately what could have been a stirring moment for viewers did not materialize in that scene.
The second is more crucial, a scene that I take as the climax of the story, the girl’s accident at the well. More intensity in visual storytelling, or even just sound instead of the subtle handling of the incident––not for the sake of mere dramatic effects but to show the gravity of the mishap and its implications–– is needed to elicit more potently the poignant act of silence later when Cáit is determined not to mention the accident to her mother who has sensed something must have happened when the girl comes home sneezing.
The cathartic ending of the film is to be applauded for it has brought out Keegan’s powerful writing most vividly. What’s more heartrending than just reading is that we can see the face of the girl running and hear the final word she utters to Seán as she flies into his embrace. That is the power of film.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
This is my third post participating in the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy 746 Books.
“Foster” by Claire Keegan: Short story review
The Banshees of Inisherin: Movie review