June Butler explores Colm Bairéad’s portrait of an Irish childhood.
An Cailin Ciuin (The Quiet Girl) makes me beyond proud of the calibre of film in Ireland – it is simply one of the most soulful and moving films to grace Irish cinemas for some time. With this Irish-language adaptation of Claire Keegan’s story Foster, Colm Bairéad has created a moving, poignant tableau that is impressive in its discourse and momentum.
Adhering closely to the original story, An Cailin Ciuin narrates the tale of Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a ten-year-old girl with several siblings both older and younger. Cáit’s sisters are psychologically detached and share no fraternal bonds with her. They join with schoolmates to sneer and deride the young girl, maliciously labelling Cáit a ‘weirdo’. Cáit’s mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) has a toddler to take care of, and is heavily pregnant. Her father (Michael Patric), is a drunken philanderer with no interest in his children or wife. Amidst the chaos and neglect, Cáit retreats into a fantasy world and attempts to block out the toxic dysfunction, often physically distancing herself from her familial surroundings.
Opening scenes of An Cailin Ciuin show Cáit’s sisters and mother frantically searching for Cáit as she attempts to ignore their pleas. Cáit’s father gives her the nickname of ‘wanderer’ but does not intend the moniker as a compliment. Viewers are not initially introduced to Cáit, rather she is witnessed slowly emerging and standing up among tall grasses where she was lying unnoticed, almost as if in a state of birth. The audience is allowed impress their own thoughts, ideas and whims onto the young girl as she meanders towards her home. Director Colm Bairead has cleverly ensnared viewers from the onset as each person watching imprints their hopes and fears onto Cáit.
Cáit’s story commences when she is sent to the home of an older couple, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán Cinnsealach (Andrew Bennett) who lost their young son in a tragic accident some years earlier. Cáit’s parents have no connection to her and see the girl as simply another mouth to feed. Eibhlín and Seán welcome Cáit into their home and treat her as if she was their own. They are horrified at the seeming callousness of casting a child off and sending her to live with strangers. Initially the interaction between the three is fraught, stilted, and awkward but gradually a thaw sets in and Cáit starts to come into her own.
A common theme throughout An Cailin Ciuin, is an equal one of distancing and symbiosis. Cáit is witnessed through the eyes of her mother, father and sisters as feckless, odd, and aloof. When acknowledged via the prism of love, she develops in emotional maturity and changes almost visibly. A third stance is that of self-reflection. She gazes into the magical pool near the home of Eibhlín and Seán. She sees darkness and myth – a blank slate, endless possibilities, growth and evolution. Later, as Eibhlín brushes Cáit’s hair, Cáit gradually observes her image in the mirror for the first time and gently, a wave of recognition and calm washes over her. Finally, the unleashing of joy that sentience brings, a feeling of truly living which coalesces to an unbridled delight in life. In turn, Cáit recognises her inner self, joined by the action of self-actualisation as she metaphorically turns towards the sun. There too, when she enters a dreamy fugue-like state, as she races down the lane towards the post-box to collect letters for Seán, it is clear that the impact of affirmation without judgement has shown how simple encouragement can cause her light to shine so brilliantly.
Unfettered, coltish, An Cailin Ciuin unfolds as a thing of beauty when it becomes clear how affection can brighten the darkest of skies and cause flowers to bloom in the most barren of landscapes. The overarching message to take from An Cailin Ciuin is that a family is not necessarily the one you are born into, and the ties that bind can be found in the hearts of strangers.
Special mention should be made of Kate McCullough’s cinematography, which is utterly stunning.
An Cailin Ciuin screened on 23rd February 2022 at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
An Cailin Ciuin is released in cinemas from 13th May 2022.