'The Quiet Girl' brings one child's life alive
- Written by Martha K. Baker
A tall, plain woman in her 50s sets a cookie in front of a waif. That offering changes everything for that girl. "The Quiet Girl" brilliantly brings to the screen Claire Keegan's exquisite novella, Foster. The book won an Irish award after its publication in 2009, and the film version, renamed "The Quiet Girl," was rightfully nominated for an Oscar as the first Irish-language film for Best International Feature.
The lass of the title is as fragile as her story. Cáit lives with her parents in rural Ireland in the early 1980s. The Irish Troubles do not infiltrate her life, defined by her drunken father, who cannot stay sober enough to bring in the hay for pay, and her ever pregnant mother of girls. This girl says little -- not that anyone would listen anyway. She glances. She listens in. She observes and absorbs -- and survives.
To reduce the mouths to feed, the father drives this child to a cousin's house in Wexford to be fostered for the summer. There, the kitchen is spacious and immaculate. There, she has a room to herself, albeit a room with trains on the wallpaper. There, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) bathes her tenderly, an ablution new to the child, and Seán (Andrew Bennett) includes her in the chores of caring for the cows. In this house, card parties get raucous and silly.
There, too, is a secret, a denial of Eibhlín's declaration that the family keeps no secrets. But that secret is not sensational, not blown out of proportion either by Keegan or by Colm Bairéad, who adapted and directed this gentle film. Although he opens the story a tad with scenes of the girl's home life, Bairéad focuses on Caít, shows her new world through her eyes. Kate McCullough's cinematography exploits that point of view by focusing on details -- blackness of a bar at noon, trees outside a moving car, beams of sun on well water. Her camera often peers in at the kitchen door. McCullough shoots the mysterious grown-ups from Caít's point of view at the level of their hips.
Catherine Clinch portrays the quiet girl, exploiting the character's wariness. For all her appropriate distancing in the role, Clinch throws herself into the final, heart-wrenching scene.
Just as in Keegan's novels, every word, every crystalline scene counts in "The Quiet Girl." Each must be heard and seen with precision. When that cookie is set on the table in an insert shot, it is not just a cookie. It is a stealth symbol. It is everything.