The Quiet Girl
Synopsis: Irish schoolgirl spends the summer with relatives. Deals with secrets. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of April 2023)
Why does esteemed Irish author Claire Keegan toy with us? Keegan wrote the novella “Foster” upon which this movie is based. All of her prose is crafted exactingly, lifting us here, scraping our hearts there. Now, dammit, the movie The Quiet Girl does the same! Can’t we just experience something lyrical without fate kicking a beloved character -or two or three- about?
The Quiet Girl is set circa 1980 in rural Ireland. Cáit (Catherine Clinch) looks to be about nine years old and receives no time or care from her older sisters or mom (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh). The mother is busy with a toddler and encumbered by pregnancy. Jaaysus! I thought, this is not 1950. Have the parents never heard of family planning? But then, I recalled reading that, hand and glove with the Catholic Church, the government would chuck unmarried girls and women into workhouses, whilst warehousing and neglecting the kids. I suppose there is little time to give the babies bottles with staff (nuns?) too busy shaming and exploiting the mothers. (Oh, and after a bit of research, I saw that Ireland in 1980 was like 1950. Condoms were not available without a prescription until 1985!)
Let’s get this out of the way right now. With just a few scenes, it’s clear that Cáit’s father is a low life bastard. He stomps around the house all aggro, causing the poor kids to freeze in place.
The Quiet Girl begins with the end of the school year and Cáit set to be taken in for the summer by older relatives of her mom’s. So, hopefully, this is a change for the better for the child. The bastard dad (Michael Patric) manages to drive Cait out to the farmhouse where she’ll be staying with Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett). Cait doesn’t say a word when she’s introduced to the kindly couple. They invite the girl and her bastard dad in for a meal before he takes off again. And it can’t be too soon, believe me. While they are welcoming, he’s surly. You can tell he’s thinking: Ah! Think you’re better than me? Which they are, of course.
You might be thinking I’m being too hard on the guy: hear me out. In short order we learn that the only things this guy can do are gamble away any money he gets his hands on and repeatedly knock up his wife. Before he leaves, he tells the couple they can work the girl hard– as though the child is some sort of slave. Then he stubs his cig out on his lunch plate. Enough about him and back to Cáit…
The dear girl is watchful around the farming couple. Poor Cáit practically exudes being unwanted. What follows is unremarkable in its way; each day unfurls much like the day before with light chores done together and each evening rolls in with the man calling goodnight to the girl from in front of the telly and the woman carefully brushing Cáit’s hair till it’s glossy.
Now this may sound boring, but we see that the routine and Eibhlín’s kindness help the child to recover. But, recover from what, we wonder. Because there is something beyond neglect.
Early in the summer, the woman tells Cáit that they are off to the well together. So, Cáit asks about the little expedition: Is it a secret? This from a girl who clearly hasn’t had the fun of friendships or confidences with sisters. The nature of the secrets she’s been told to keep must be of a far different nature. No, Eibhlín says calmly. There are no secrets here.
Before long, I started to worry for young Cáit because directorial flourishes started to turn up that may have been foreshadowing or, perhaps, metaphors. When the girl and the woman go to the well, the sparkling water is filmed in slow motion as it’s ladled into a pail. This made me afraid the kid might fall down the well. However, when tea is poured, that’s also shown in slow motion. And close up. Significant? But when Eibhlín offers Cáit orange juice, the camera is quite casual. You can bet she’s never had the sweet, vitamin C rich drink at her own home because her bastard dad is too busy spending the money on booze, cigs and hard-bitten women who aren’t his wife.
Now, about the man, Seán… Cáit trails after the woman, enjoying her company and –stereotype alert — peeling potatoes, but she likes to wander about outside too, soaking up the natural beauty and seeing what the farm animals are up to. I think the film’s budget was quite constrained, because, although the farm is meant to include a dairy barn, we rarely see a cow. We just hear them mooing in the distance.
Sometimes Cáit helps Seán sweep out the empty milking shed. At first, the man is reserved around her and it seems like having Cáit spend the summer is 100% his wife’s idea. But he’s pleasant enough and gradually warms to her, praising her as a fast runner and giving her coins for ice cream when they all go to town. One evening, they hike to the beach to look at the moonlight on the water. Seán commences to tell the girl a story about a horse at sea and how this was strange, much like the day she’d just had. Mostly Cáit is quiet. Maybe she didn’t understand the comparison and neither did I.
One thing I did understand was when Cáit was outdoors with Seán and he let her give a bottle of milk to a calf. She asks why they give the bottle of (cheap) bottled milk to the wee bovine and keep the rich milk for people, instead of letting Nature be, with the calf and cow together. This one I get! How is it that things get so mixed up for the worse in this world? Or maybe she’s getting sensitized to the systemic coldness of animal husbandry.
Be advised that Cáit’s summer isn’t just an idyll of making gooseberry jam and sitting at the kitchen table in the evening listening to the visiting neighbors speak Gaelic. There’s a wicked neighbor lady, the hidden perils of agricultural work and a letter from home. Said letter is important… maybe it’s news of her father hauled off to jail or a missive from Dublin about a fantastic and fiery new group called U2. You’ll have to see. (It’s neither 😉
P.S. Did you know that 90% of primary schools in Ireland are operated by the Catholic church? According to research cited by the “Independent,” 78% of the population identifies as Catholic. A Georgetown University study reports regular weekly Mass attendance at 35% in 2018. (Compare this to 87% in 1981.)
P.P.S. Gaeilge or Irish Gaelic is used daily (outside of school) by roughly 70,000 people in Ireland. The language is a required subject in any school that receives public funds.
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