In ‘The Quiet Girl,’ an Irish Loneliness Rarely Seen Onscreen

The first Irish-language film to be nominated for an Oscar, directed by Colm Bairéad, tells a gentle story of cultural reticence.

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By Roisin Lanigan

Reporting from London

This article contains spoilers for the film “The Quiet Girl.”

For the first 55 minutes of “The Quiet Girl,” the film’s audience does not know why the titular child has been sent to live with strangers in the Irish countryside. Cáit (Catherine Clinch), 9, does not know either. Her parents do not talk to her, and they barely speak to each other.

Cáit eventually learns the truth from a nosy neighbor: While her parents prepare for the birth of yet another baby, she has been shuttled from her chaotic family home to spend the summer with some middle-aged relatives, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett), who have their own silent sorrow.

This uneasy, unanswered isolation is at the heart of “The Quiet Girl,” which arrives in U.S. theaters on Friday, and is the first Irish-language film to be nominated for an Oscar. A “hushed work about kith and kindness,” as Lisa Kennedy wrote in her review for The New York Times, the film tells a quintessentially Irish story, yet one that is rarely seen by international audiences on the big screen.

Irish cinema often features a cast of gregarious men and pious, conservative women, like in Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”; “Brooklyn,” starring Saoirse Ronan; and Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated “Belfast.”

“Irish people are always known for the gift of the gab,” said Cleona Ní Chrualaoí, the producer of “The Quiet Girl.” “It becomes almost a caricature.” But in Chrualaoí’s film, Cáit and her new wards cautiously try to connect through their loneliness and pain.

The depiction of such struggles to communicate has resonated deeply with Irish audiences. The feature — called “An Cailín Ciúin” in Ireland — was named the best film of 2022 by the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle, and screenings in the country have regularly left viewers in tears.

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For Colm Bairéad, the film’s director, miscommunication is at the heart of both “The Quiet Girl” and its source material, Claire Keegan’s novella “Foster.”

“So much of it is under the surface,” he said in a recent video interview, noting that Keegan’s prose was able to capture an Irish inability to open up. “There’s this emotional reticence that hangs over everything,” he added.

Irish people “don’t talk about our feelings in the way other cultures do,” said Siobhan O’Neill, a professor at the University of Ulster, whose work focuses on intergenerational trauma. “People who are traumatized,” she added, “don’t want to talk about it.”

In both Cáit’s fictional childhood — set in the ’80s, in the countryside — and my own, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the two subsequent decades, the effects of the historically religious and conservative society hung in the air. Like Cáit, as a child I attended wakes and was aware of the way gossip moves in small communities.

This social history had wider implications: I was 4 when the last “Magdalene laundry” — abject institutions usually run by the Catholic Church where thousands of women worked without pay — closed. Like many children of the “cease-fire baby” generation, born just before the end of the Troubles, I struggled to communicate with my parents through an atmosphere of generalized anxiety.

The same intergenerational malaise permeates “The Quiet Girl.” While most of the film’s dialogue is in Irish, Cáit’s cold father (Michael Patric) is the only character who speaks exclusively in English, reflecting the distance between him and Cáit.

The film’s preference for Irish dialogue has been widely praised in Ireland, as a wider so-called Celtic revival across music, politics and fashion has recently been celebrating the language. Less than 2 percent of the Irish population speaks the country’s native language on a daily basis, but recent Irish-language interviews from Paul Mescal and Brendan Gleeson on the red carpet at the British Academy Film Awards attracted much attention online, including Mescal’s praise for “The Quiet Girl.”

When Bairéad, who has raised his children with Ní Chrualaoí speaking Irish at home, read “Foster,” in 2018, he said he knew he wanted to make it an Irish-language film. The book could “be an authentic Irish-language story,” he said. “We weren’t forcing the language into a scenario.”

At the time, he and Ní Chrualaoí were expecting their second child, and both felt drawn to Cáit’s aching loneliness, Bairéad said. In the film, the absence of Cáit’s world unfolds in slow, dreamy glimpses rather than via dialogue: a glove box filled with cigarettes, a child sitting alone in the bath. The pair were also aware, Bairéad said, of how rarely figures like Cáit were the protagonists in Irish stories.

“There’s been a tendency in our cinema to pander to something that’s expected of us,” Bairéad said. But a recent wave of Irish films feel “very sure of themselves in terms of their identity,” he added. “They’re coming from the inside out, rather than the outside in.”

These films include the fellow Oscar contender “The Banshees of Inisherin,” in which Colm’s (Brendan Gleeson) ennui becomes a self-destructive determination to create a musical legacy. In the 2022 film “The Wonder,” the protagonist’s inability to speak about girlhood sexual abuse is transformed into a belief that God is speaking through her body.

In “The Quiet Girl,” we see Cáit grow from a lonely little girl to a more confident and open child. The film tackles the effect of societal traumas, O’Neill said, by addressing what goes “deeper than words,” and how comfort, sometimes, has to come from somewhere other than talking.

With words still scarce, Cáit finds comfort in the softness of Eibhlín’s touch, and her discovery — thanks to Seán — of the joy of movement. Although verbal expressions of emotion might continue to be culturally difficult for Cáit and for those around her, in the film’s powerful final moments, we see the child running, silently, toward love.

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