Silence and the things that we leave unsaid are at the heart of Irish director Colm Bairead’s debut feature film The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin).

The adaptation of Irish writer Claire Keegan’s 2010 short story Foster is set in early 1980s rural Ireland, and was recently in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Commissioned by Cine4, an initiative in Ireland aimed at producing feature films in Irish Gaelic, it has already won Best Film at the Irish Film and Television Awards, and was the first Gaelic language film to compete at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Speaking to a packed theatre at Cremorne’s Hayden Orpheum before the screening of his film during the festival, director Bairéad praised Keegan as a “gem of Irish literature this century” and said he found her short story “mind blowing” when he first read it.  He spoke of how Keegan’s vivid prose made it incredibly easy to imagine as cinema. 

Bairéad grew up in a ‘bilingual household’ in Ireland with a father who insisted on speaking only Gaelic to his children and so, he wanted to bring his father’s love of the Irish language to this film. 

Yet for all this talk of language, the film is distinctly quiet; in fact, it is in the lingering silences that The Quiet Girl truly speaks. 

Clinch captures the tentative awkwardness of a child starting to see the world anew and realising the painful secrets the adults around her have kept quiet.

The film opens with Cáit (Catherine Clinch) lying in a field, hidden under long grass, her name being called out — she does not answer. 

Later, we see her in the rundown farmhouse that she and her many siblings live in with their alcoholic father (Michael Patric) and heavily pregnant mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh); in one scene, their mother has forgotten to make their school lunches and so, their father tells his children to simply take slices of bread from the bag. 

At school, Cáit is awkward and silent. After spilling milk on herself, the other children, including her sisters, laugh at her. She responds by running away. 

This behaviour becomes the easy excuse for her parents packing her off for the summer to stay with relatives who live on a farm in a neighbouring county. The Kinsellas’ clean farm house is in stark contrast to the chaos of Cáit’s. Cinematographer Kate McCullough beautifully captures light inside the home and on the farm, rendering it, as the story continues, into something symbolic. 

Bairéad’s character development of the two father-figures in the film, Cáit’s dad and Kinsella, played by Andrew Bennett, is memorable. In the film Cáit’s father, in comparison to Keegan’s character, comes with more backstory. 

In an early scene, Cáit witnesses, as a passenger in her father’s car, him picking up a woman (Carolyn Bracken) who appears to be his mistress. He also is the only character in The Quiet Girl who never speaks in Gaelic. His put downs, aimed at his worn out wife and children, seem even more cruel because they are uttered in English. 

In Foster, Kinsella is welcoming of the young girl from the time she arrives yet, in the film, the farmer is initially portrayed as taciturn. I kept wondering whilst watching why Bairéad had chosen to do this. I think the answer, and where it diverges from Keegan’s story, is that he wants to make a particular point about fathers, a point that the heartbreaking end scene drives home. 

Finally, Clinch’s performance as Cait is powerful. In the silences, the camera lingers on her sad blue eyes, speaking volumes. The young actor captures the tentative awkwardness of a child starting to see the world anew and realising the painful secrets the adults around her have kept quiet. 

Main image supplied.