In Colm Bairéad’s remarkable new drama The Quiet Girl, it’s 1981 in rural Ireland, where families speak Irish Gaelic at home and cows are a perfectly apt topic of dinnertime. And there’s a new face at the dinner table.
Sitting across from Eileen and Seán Kinsella is nine-year-old Cáit, a lovely whisper of a girl played by first-time actor Catherine Clinch. They don’t know exactly what to make of Cáit at first, but she’s here to stay—for a year.
How Cáit came to live with her aunt and uncle is etched into the film’s opening scenes. There’s no time or money to care for Cáit or her siblings properly. Her father, Dan (Michael Patric), is a careless, drunken fool—described by his daughters as a “feckin’ piss-pants”—who’d rather lose money on football or at the track than help at their farm. Poor bedraggled Mam (mom) Mary (actor Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) doesn’t look well—she’s expecting another baby, one more mouth to feed.
So when the neglected daughter gets packed off to stay with the family Cinnsealach—that’s the family name Kinsella, in Irish—she’s a stranger to them, and they to her. But there’s something in her auntie Eibhlín’s—that is, Eileen’s—calm, warm expression that’s hard to put into words. There’s an unspoken feeling of love in the air between them.
The Irish language is practically unpronounceable for contemporary American tongues, but it’s a thing of beauty to hear. It’s a language in which seemingly even the most urgent information is tucked into an unselfconscious flow. It’s the language of gooseberry pie and a hot cup of tea, of getting tucked into bed at night, of helping Uncle Seán care for the cows, of stories about a deep pool of pure water in the forest, of fishermen’s tales of a horse found floating in the ocean. And also it’s the language of going into Waterford town—on the coast of the Celtic Sea in southeastern Ireland—to buy Cáit a whole new set of clothes to wear to church, to show her she’s a treasured member of the family, “good as go.”
An Cailín Ciúin (the film’s Irish title) isn’t the ordinary type of “feel-good” flick, packaged and processed with musical cues and soppy speeches. The best strategy for experiencing the story is to slow down, watch and listen. Bairéad beguiles the audience into seeing Cáit’s life unfold as she does. Relax, and let it charm.
Opens Friday at AMC Mercado in Santa Clara.