Screening as part of the Irish Film Festival, The Quiet Girl is a gloriously beautiful film set in the Irish countryside in the early 1980s. The quiet girl in question is nine-year-old Cáit (played by Catherine Clinch) who lives on a farm with her siblings, her pregnant mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh), and her father (Michael Patric). The family is having difficulty supporting itself, thanks largely to Cáit's father, who is a drunk. Cáit is often left to fend for herself, even forced to steal a glass of milk from a fellow student at school.
With so many mouths to feed and another baby on the way, it is decided Cáit will be shipped off to distant relatives for the summer. These relatives are Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her dairy-farmer husband Seán (Andrew Bennett). Eibhlín is Cáit's mother's cousin and she warmly, if not a little stiffly, welcomes Cáit. Eibhlín even politely puts up with the boorish behaviour of Cáit's father who soon drives off without so much as a word of thanks or a goodbye to his daughter. Even worse: Cait's suitcase is still in the car, meaning she has only the clothes on her back for the rest of summer.
If Cáit is shocked she doesn't show it, saying as little as possible to her new carers. Eibhlín shows Cáit the house and the farm and finds some old clothes for her. Seán isn't as welcoming: he goes about his work and is often silent when he's in the house, preferring the television to engaging with Cáit, failing even to look up from the screen when she says goodnight to him.
So the quiet summer days accrue for the temporary family. But things change when Eibhlín is forced out of the house to comfort a neighbour dealing with a sick family member. This forces Seán and Cáit to spend time together, something Seán has assiduously avoided up to this point. Things also change when Cáit learns something about Eibhlín and Seán from another neighbour.
Directed by Colm Bairéad, The Quiet Girl is a majestic piece of filmmaking. Careful and considered in pace, it's exquisitely composed. The verdant Irish countryside plays the perfect setting for the sparse, quiet world that Cáit and her foster parents exist in. The dialogue between the trio (Gaelic is spoken mostly in the film) is spare and sometimes formal. That's until, ever so gently, all three begin to let their guard down.
Newcomer Catherine Clinch's performance as Cáit is amazing. Her reticence is countered by a face showing a still-little-enough girl trying to process a vast and often bewildering world around her. Carrie Crowley plays Eibhlín perfectly, offering a woman seemingly reluctant to get too attached, but obviously grateful for Cáit's presence. Andrew Bennett's Seán gives an equally effective performance as the gruff farmer.
Where The Quiet Girl excels is in its restraint. At many points, an event sinister or shocking feels like it's coming around the corner. But what happens instead proves much more rewarding. It's nothing more than a simple story of family and neglect and poverty and love. And it's perfect.
The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) is screening as part of the Irish Film Festival which runs August-September. See irishfilmfestival.com.au for details.