The Quiet Girl Review: Colm Bairéad’s Gently Perceptive Portrait of the Scars of Living

Bairéad’s first fiction feature is a work of rapturous emotional depth.

The Quiet Girl
Photo: Super LTD

At the start of writer-director Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl, Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is seen hiding in a field as her three sisters and pregnant mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) call out her name. She skulks back home to her room, where we grasp the reason why she fled to that spot in the field: The nine-year-old has wet her bed, and presumably not for the first time. Not long after, Cáit leaves school in the middle of the day because of an incident during lunch. The young girl’s tendency to run from her problems is such a constant that her father (Michael Patric), otherwise remote and inattentive, wryly calls her “the wanderer.”

Adapted from Claire Keegan’s novella Foster and set in 1980s Ireland, The Quiet Girl features primarily Irish-language dialogue, with a few portions in English. Throughout, the film’s approach to storytelling reflects Cáit’s avoidant tendencies, which isn’t to say that Bairéad keeps us at an emotional remove from the events of the story. If the film is a work of rapturous emotional depth, it’s because of its reserved qualities rather than in spite of them.

For one, we’re not directly told why Cáit’s parents send her and her alone to stay with a childless older couple, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán Kinsella (Andrew Bennett), for the summer. From her actions and the way that others behave toward her, though, we can see how she’s practiced in being the odd one out, so if one of the kids must go away for a while, she’s the natural choice. Her exact relation to Eibhlín and Seán also goes unsaid for some time; they’re welcoming and kind but, as Eibhlín observes, essentially strangers to Cáit. One late scene even abruptly cuts away when a guest asks the Kinsellas who Cáit is and why she’s staying with them.

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The Quiet Girl is withholding without ever suggesting that it’s going to be defined entirely by narrative reveals or shocking twists. In keying itself to Cáit’s reserved, observational nature, Bairéad ably and realistically captures the way in which people don’t always say what they mean or explain things neatly and sequentially. Though the film spends little time depicting Cáit’s initial home life, the stressful squeeze of poverty is apparent everywhere, from the harried attitudes of her family to the cluttered set design, which the camerawork further emphasizes with its boxy aspect ratio and often capturing characters between cramped walls.

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But at the Kinsella home, The Quiet Girl’s aesthetic is fascinatingly reoriented. The shot compositions become more open and airy, as if the warmth that Cáit feels inside this tidy home on a dairy farm were altering the fiber of the film itself. Where previously the camera would need to cut away from Cáit to observe any of the surrounding action, everything that happens with the Kinsellas unfolds with her in the same frame. It’s as though she learns how to exist in a way that doesn’t leave her feeling uncomfortable for taking up space.

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Yet even here inside this tidy home on a dairy farm, unspoken tensions persist, as when Eibhlín, at first relaxed while preparing food in the kitchen with Cáit, stiffens when Seán enters the room. Their accommodation of her, it seems, is built on a pain of its own.

The Kinsellas also offer a simple yet striking contrast when they balk at Cáit’s father’s suggestion of putting the girl to work in exchange for her stay at the home, even though that’s more or less what Eibhlín and Seán do by taking her through their chores on the farm. But it’s clear that, to the couple, the companionship is the point rather than the idea of a helping hand; they’re attentive and nurturing in a way that the girl has never experienced before.

Apart from a few muttered asides and unnecessary flashbacks, The Quiet Girl operates in a reserved mode throughout its running time. This isn’t a film that makes room for stirring speeches or easy shorthand. Consistently observational and perceptive about how scars are left behind, The Quiet Girl earns its most emotionally powerful scenes because of the way that it so gracefully convinces us that it wasn’t even building toward them in the first place.

Score: 
 Cast: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh  Director: Colm Bairéad  Screenwriter: Colm Bairéad  Distributor: Super LTD  Running Time: 94 min  Year: PG-13  Buy: Video

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

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