I’m not much of a crier. Not anymore anyway, my parents would have you believe I cried every day of my life until I was seven years old. They’re probably right too, but I digress. I’m not ashamed to admit I let a few tears fall at Colm Bairéad’s feature debut, An Cailín Ciúin. The film – adapted from Claire Keegan’s novella Foster – is by turns tense, joyous and bittersweet. It makes for an astounding debut for not only Bairéad but the film’s eponymous quiet girl, too.
Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is a withdrawn, neglected girl living with her large family on a rundown Wexford farm in 1981. Her pregnant mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) sends her away for the summer to live with her distant cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband, Seán (Andrew Bennett), on their much more successful dairy farm. For the first time in her life nine-year-old Cáit experiences a loving home life, but unbeknownst to her, Eibhlín and Seán have a secret that threatens the peaceful idyllic summer.
An Cailín Ciúin swept the Irish Films and Television Awards in March of this year netting seven wins including Best Picture, Best Actress for Clinch, Best Supporting Actress for Crowley, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best Original Score. Bairéad also won the Rising Star category. All deserved. An Cailín Ciúin walks a fine line between the firm-but-fair realism Irish cinema is known for and something more dreamlike and ephemeral. This is all thanks to the impressive craft on display in every frame from the hopeful performances to the brisk but never hurried editing.
An Cailín Ciúin is a gorgeous looking film. Every frame of Kate McCullough’s vibrantly naturalistic cinematography brims with emotion. From the unknowable depths of Cáit’s aquamarine eyes to the silent brooding shots of Bennett’s Seán sitting in an armchair McCullough achieves a rare thing. There’s a universality to An Cailín Ciúin but also a specificity, and McCullough captures both. This is a uniquely Irish film, and not just because most of its dialogue is in Gaelic. Older audience members will recognise the hardships faced by Cáit and her family in the 1980s while younger ones will be made aware of them, possibly for the first time.
This is more than just a historical document, though. It’s a film of remarkable beauty that never feels nostalgic for a hard and lean time in national history. Instead, it tells a coming-of-age story that you never want to end despite knowing that it must. It’s a film that, like its protagonist, only speaks when it has to but when it does you listen. An Cailín Ciúin feels like the first great Irish film of this young decade so far. It’s one destined to draw in mams and dads on a Saturday evening on TG4 or RTÉ as much as its destined to give their kids a welcome break from an tuiseal ginideach during the school week. It’s a new classic of the Irish canon.