The Quiet Girl (2022)

Colm Bairéad | 1hr 36min

The abuse that nine-year-old Cáit suffers at the hands of her parents is never specified in The Quiet Girl, but director and writer Colm Bairéad gives us all we need in one key scene, revealing the expectations she has of all grown-ups. Now under the temporary care of distant relatives Eibhlín and Seán while her mother is pregnant, she is brought to her new family’s well to collect water. “Is it a secret? Am I not supposed to tell?” she sheepishly asks. Eibhlín’s sorrowful reaction mirrors our own. “There are no secrets in this house,” she assures the young girl. The kindness and warmth they have to offer is entirely foreign to Cáit, revealing a softer side to the world which may at least partially alleviate her trauma before she is returned to her parents, though in this delicate surrogate relationship it eventually becomes clear that such emotional healing goes both ways.

The countryside that Bairéad envisions in this depiction of rural Ireland is clearly one that he recalls from his own childhood in the 1980s, its décor carefully curated to the era’s musty patterned wallpaper and bare wooden furniture. Within his boxy aspect ratio, actors are cropped into narrow spaces, emphasising a claustrophobia which his doorframe shots and shallow focus continue to restrict. Cáit’s frame is already tiny, and when Bairéad turns to wide angle lenses she is virtually swallowed up by her environment. This is a girl who treads lightly and makes her presence small as a means of survival, and is only now finding the love she deserves in the home of Eibhlín and Seán.

Even here though, there is still a vague air of sadness that lingers in its rooms and hallways. It may not be immediately evident to Cáit, but the train-themed wallpaper of her temporary bedroom and the boy’s clothes they dress her in highlight a tragic void left in this family that they cannot bring themselves to talk about. Even more painful is the awkward callousness which Seán carries around with him, hinting at a grief he has not yet learned to deal with. Bursts of irritability occasionally erupt when Cáit helps him on the farm, but her presence also softens him over time, as he opens himself up to the love and pain of being a father once again. Her encounter with a nosy neighbour later in the film confirms all our suspicions, bringing to light the devastating fate of Eibhlín and Seán’s son, though by this point the reveal is barely needed. Everything we need to know about their role Cáit fills in their lives has already been expressed with magnificent narrative economy.

Still, this plot beat does at least motivate a shift in Catherine Clinch’s understated performance of this shy, young girl. With a greater understanding of her surrogate parents’ past comes a comprehension of what she means to them, and a new self-confidence begins to bloom. As she starts to feel more comfortable, Bairéad moves gracefully through the images of her gradual integration into this home’s routine, as well as her liberating run through forests rendered in evocative slow-motion.

When the final minutes of the film roll around and he returns to this motif one last time, he lands it with even greater power. It is inevitable that Cáit will have to return to her neglectful family, but for what may be the first time in her life, she acts out in defiance. Memories of her time spent with Eibhlín and Seán flash by as she bolts into their arms, grasping at their warm affection one last time before it is ripped away. Just as Bairéad has resisted showing us the details of her terrible home life, he is also right not to show us what comes next. The Quiet Girl is not a film of hopeless misery but rather gentle repose, establishing a symbiotic harmony between broken children and adults alike, and letting them heal through each other’s simple, gracious presence.

The Quiet Girl is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


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