Language lessons

Patrick Mulcahy on a film of sadness & sensitivity

The Quiet Girl, the debut feature of Irish writer-director Colm Bairéad, is a mostly faithful adaptation of Claire Keegan’s short story, ‘Foster’, with one significant change. The dialogue alternates between English and Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic), the former synonymous with emotional distance, the latter associated with kindness. An English-speaking Irish family pass one of their children to a Gaelige-speaking couple who insist upon a lack of secrets but are affected by a heartbreak that they refuse to discuss.

Set in the early 1980s, ‘Foster’ is narrated by the unnamed girl who begins the story by describing the drive to her mother’s cousin’s house. The film opens with nine-year-old Cait (Catherine Crouch) hiding from her siblings in the long grass – we can barely see her – to emphasise how she feels at odds with her family; she similarly hides under her own bed and is isolated at school.

The short story, for the most part, describes the present. Occasionally, the unnamed child reflects on the past: for example, her father not holding her hand, and contrasts this with the farmer looking after her. The film invites us to consider Cait’s behaviour. Why does she appear to be more sensitive than her siblings and in need of being cared for by others? Has she seen something that her siblings have not?

Cait’s sensitivity results in bed-wetting, but farmer’s wife, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), draws attention away from it. “Oh, the mattress must be damp,” she explains, adding: “I ought to change it”; she attempts to settle Cait’s nerves. Cait is left without a change of clothes by her father – he drives off with her case in the boot of his car – but fortunately there are clothes available.

Cait features in almost every scene, radiating a mixture of sadness and a willingness to please. She initially helps Eibhlin in the kitchen before accompanying farmer Séan (Andrew Bennett) on his rounds. He initially engages her in running to the postbox to pick up the mail before allowing her to help him sweep up; eventually, they race each other clearing up water with their brooms.

Matters come to a head when Cait attends a wake and is briefly minded by a woman who asks a lot of questions about Eibhlin, including whether she uses butter or margarine and whether she has a freezer – there is a simmering resentment of Eibhlin and Séan’s comparative wealth.

Much of the dialogue translated into Gaeilige and subtitled in English comes from the short story. Bairéad adds a scene in the farm to prefigure a scene where Cait places herself in danger; in the short story, Keegan doesn’t need to do this because she allows the reader to understand her young protagonist through her thoughts and observations, whereas Bairéad asks us to interpret her actions and responses. This illustrates the difference between visual and literary storytelling. On one occasion, Keegan’s prose is on the nose.

The film’s use of Gaeilge is its most interesting aspect. One of the ways of keeping a language alive is to use it in texts exposed to the widest possible audience. Languages also connect their speakers to a particular culture. Not all Gaeilge speakers in the film are kind, but the language is explicitly associated with mindful behaviour and gentle humour. It is as if Gaeilge signifies an alternative Irish identity that is a lot less self-destructive – and perhaps, by implication, less self-hating – than English-speaking Irish.

The film describes a class divide within rural Ireland illustrated by Cait’s father’s dismissive treatment of the gift of rhubarb, dropping stems on the ground and not immediately picking them up. He doesn’t want to be seen as needing charity, even though we learn that he has been unable to afford getting the hay taken in. Pride is associated with English-speaking characters, whereas humility is linked to Gaeilge speakers.

The final scene is immensely powerful, representing an emotional response that has been repressed throughout the second half of the film. The ending makes us fear for Cait as the question about the source of her sensitivity isn’t answered. The reference to secrets early in the film makes us fear the worst.

The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) opens in UK and Irish cinemas on Friday 13th May.

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