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25 May 2022updated 11 Jan 2023 7:57am

The Quiet Girl is an artfully muted masterpiece

With his remarkable film about a timid child sent to live with relatives in rural Ireland, Colm Bairéad provides a study in wordless communication.

By Ryan Gilbey

“There’s nothing wrong with it, not a word,” remarked the novelist David Mitchell of Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster”, set in rural Ireland in 1981. The same applies to the film adaptation, The Quiet Girl, though there aren’t many words in it. One of the picture’s themes is how silence, distinct from secrecy, can be as expressive as speech, absences as forceful as any presence. The director Colm Bairéad’s remarkable debut is invested with meaning, lyricism and life. The images sing but they also breathe.

Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is the taciturn figure of the title, packed off to distant relatives while her mother gives birth to a sixth child. Her scowling father (Michael Patric), the only person in the film who won’t let a word of Irish cross his lips, drives her in his lemon Cortina to a middle-aged couple on the coast. Unloading her there without a goodbye (“Try not to fall into the fire, you”), he zooms off with her suitcase still in the boot, leaving the child with only the clothes she’s wearing. He has given her guardians permission to “work her”, but that frock already looks like it’s been up a chimney.

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Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) seems welcoming enough, though it could fall either way: the firmness with which she overrules the girl’s gentle complaint that the bath water is too hot suggests she will brook no dissent. When Cáit wets the bed, however, she spares the child’s embarrassment with an observation that is both casually poetic and too glorious to spoil here. Not for the last time, the screen is warmed through by an uncommon generosity of nature.

Her husband, Seán (Andrew Bennett), takes a while to thaw in the child’s presence, and loses his temper when she briefly goes missing on his farm. The sound of Cáit’s pattering footsteps as she runs off to escape his anger blurs wonderfully into the applause on television when we cut to later that evening. As Seán bids her a gruff goodnight from his armchair, there is some skilful acting-in-profile from Bennett, who moves his head a millimetre or two once she’s gone, the camera keeping vigil long enough to catch regret on that sliver of face. The next day, he offers a conciliatory token in the form of a golden Kimberley biscuit placed on the table. Cáit couldn’t look any more astonished if it were an entire gingerbread house.

The rest of the performances are every bit as subtle. Crowley has the weather-beaten regality of Geraldine James, and the same expression of hopeful concern steeling itself for disappointment. Clinch, a 12-year-old newcomer with wide eyes and a slow blink, makes Cáit timid yet vivid. Her voice is high, soft and even; she parcels her words out cautiously, as though any one of them might be booby-trapped.

The Quiet Girl was shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which produces an image that’s almost square, and it is on this intimate canvas that the picture charts Cáit’s pinched existence as it is reshaped by kindness (“All you needed was some minding,” says Eibhlín) and by the peculiarities of adulthood. Why are calves on a farm fed with powdered milk, she wonders, while humans hog the dairy? Why does Eibhlín boast of a skincare secret after decreeing that secrets are a source of shame?

Information flows both ways. Adults use this enigmatic child to comprehend experiences that are hidden from them, like dolphins sending out echolocation to see what comes bouncing back. Keeping one’s own counsel finds its staunchest defender in Seán. “You don’t have to say anything,” he reassures Cáit. “Many’s the person who missed the opportunity to say nothing, and lost much because of it.” Hear that, 2022?

It’s a dubious business measuring a film’s value in tears, but it would be difficult to resist the charged unclenching of the closing seconds, when emotion that has been carefully squirrelled away is allowed a momentary release – not an outpouring, but enough to prick the heart. As the end credits rolled, I sobbed quietly in the dark, only for my companion to whisper: “It’s OK. Everyone’s crying.” The lights came up, and little pockets of embarrassed laughter began to punctuate the sniffles as strangers clocked one another’s wet faces. Where else could you find this kind of experience but at the cinema? For once, it was our eyes that were streaming, not the film.

“The Quiet Girl” is in cinemas now

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control