Rarely does a movie live up to the book upon which it is based. The Quiet Girl is a notable exception and a wonderful treat for introverts—its only characters—and extroverts alike who simply want a bit of calm from the screen. No car chases, shoot-‘em-ups, or special effects, but rather the viewer is entranced by an intricately woven story of family life in rural Ireland wherein a neglected young daughter Cáit (pronounced Kai)—born into an overcrowded family—blossoms during a summer while she is in the loving care of two older distant relatives.
Nominated for an Academy Award this year in the best international feature film category, and winner of a number of European best film awards, The Quiet Girl is described by critic Kyle Smith of The Wall Street Journal as having “the feel of one of those gemlike short stories in which nothing much happens, but crystalline realizations result from ordinary acts.” I fully agree. One scene of deep gravity follows upon another and another. There’s the moment when the foster father—who up to this point has been quite sparse with his acknowledgement of Cáit’s presence in their already quiet home—leaves the kitchen table after lunch, and quietly places a cookie near Cáit’s plate. Before the foster mother returns to the table, Cáit—just as quietly—carefully lifts the cookie into her pocket for a later treat, and we see the beginning of a smile form on her normally placid face. An ordinary act: the giving of a cookie…with a crystalline realization that she is being accepted into this new home environment, bringing her an unfamiliar yet welcome joy. The viewer must watch carefully, and interpret as they watch, for such meaningful scenes build to a loving climax. Film reviewer Smith continues, writing that The Quiet Girl “has a lightness in its heart,” and notes that the simple but exhilarating climactic scene “elegantly ties a bow around the whole picture.”
Quiet. Simple. Elegant. Without need for loud noises or fast-paced scenes. So also is the book upon which the movie is based. Claire Keegan, an Irish writer known and honored for her short stories, studied English and political science at Loyola University in New Orleans, then undertook an MA in creative writing at the University of Wales in Cardiff, and subsequently received an M.Phil. at Trinity College in Dublin. Her novella, Foster, reads quickly and delightfully. Tripping over many dysfunctional family traits with characteristic Irish realism, Keegan tells the story through the eyes of Cáit, with simplicity and without fanfare. From that carved out space of quiet observation, Cáit is equipped to make several important reflections. Among them, these:
“I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.” (chapter 1)
(Of her foster mother): “Her hands are like my mother’s hands but there is something else in them too, something I have never felt before and have no name for. I feel at such a loss for words but this is a new place, and new words are needed.” (chapter 2)
(When introduced to the well): “This water is cool and clean as anything I have ever tasted: it tastes of my father leaving, of him never having been there, of having nothing after he was gone. I dip it again and lift it level with the sunlight. I drink six measures of water and wish, for now, that this place without shame or secrets could be my home.” (chapter 2)
(Of her foster father, Kinsella, before the cookie gift): “Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind.” (chapter 5)
(And while Kinsella and Cáit are at the seashore, Cáit listens carefully as Kinsella speaks): “You don’t ever have to say anything…Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.” (chapter 5)
The pivot in both book and movie from sad, neglected young girl to animated and engaged Cáit occurs at the point when she and her foster father are at the seashore on that moonlit night. They gaze out to the barely visible horizon, upon which two lights shine brightly. As they rise to return home, Cáit looks back over her shoulder and sees a third light beaming with the other two. Another simple ordinary act, especially in a fishing culture, yet with extraordinary significance. From that moonlit moment, the film background shifts. Where there had been a silence born of curiosity and themed with dread, there is now noticeable harmonious music which invites viewers to exhale along with our protagonist Cáit. Finally, her quietude is given voice, acknowledged for its value and its place. She can breathe and be.
Through Celtic eyes, this story can be seen as a treasure trove for willing readers and viewers. The elements of earth, air, fire, and water figure prominently, as does the seasonal cyclical sense of time so familiar to the Celts. Valuing of truth over fact—in this narrative, the truth of practiced love—also forms a foundation for the narrative. As one finds in visiting Ireland or other of the Celtic lands, there is a lightness and playfulness that is subtle. So too in this story, keeping viewer and reader awake to the quiet subtleties love brings. Finally, if you take the time to experience the film, I recommend you remain for the concluding music during the credits. An intertwined piano/violin duet places a lovely note of reflection, and invites the viewer to enjoy a deep refreshing breath of now.
(Cleona Ní Chrualaoí, Producer. Written and Directed by Colm Bairéad. Production Companies: Inscéal, Fís Éireann / Screen Ireland, TG4, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. 2022)
Based on the novella Foster by Claire Keegan
(New York: Grove Press, 2022; first published in the UK by Faber & Faber Limited, 2010)