In the summer of 1981 Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a young girl pushed to the sidelines of an ever growing family, stays with distant relatives while her mother prepares for the arrival of a new baby.
An Cailín Ciúin, written and directed by Colm Bairéad, adapts Claire Keegan’s novella Foster to the screen with a delicate and deft hand. This is the finest Irish language film in recent memory, among a not insignificant number of distinguished releases.
As the film begins, Cáit’s sisters are searching the family farm for her. They call out for their sister, but young Cáit ignores them as she seeks a moment of quiet away from the din of her family’s busy household. Cáit is prone to wandering and it seems that the only time her family show much concern for her is when they don’t know where she’s hiding.
When Cáit is around she may as well be invisible. She is somewhere in the middle of her siblings, between a couple of loudmouth older sisters, a crying toddler and soon a baby on the way. Their mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is stretched thin. She struggles to wrangle the kids and keep her husband, Dan (Michael Patric), on the right path as well. His passions are the ponies and pints, and the farm gets in the way of both.
One night, Cáit overhears her parents arguing, verbalising frustrations that usually take the form of banging and clattering around the house and farm. Somewhere along the way it’s decided that Cáit will spend the summer months with the Kinsellas, “her mother’s people” from Dungarvan.
The next day Dan drives deep into Waterford with his daughter. On the way, Cáit tries to show interest in a bet that her father has placed on the Sunday game, but the radio announces an unwelcome goal and quickly puts a stop to the fun. Dan falls back into a familiar routine: he curses at the radio. Cáit sinks into the backseat of the car. Sleep is the best option for the remainder of their journey.
When Dan drops Cáit off at the Kinsellas’ it’s with the same level of circumstance and ceremony that you might drop your friend’s vaguely familiar second cousin to the airport as a favour.
He doesn’t speak Irish like his wife and children, or his wife’s people for that matter. It puts him at odds with the Kinsellas. He’s visibly uncomfortable, carrying himself like a child more than Cáit, who looks through him with a far off expression as he brushes aside kind gestures and the Kinsellas’ good nature.
An Cáilin Ciúin almost always focuses on Cáit’s perspective. Not through point-of-view shots or voiced narration, but through a commitment to an intimate aesthetic that succeeds in capturing the immediacy of Foster’s present-tense prose.
Kate McCullough’s cinematography favours low angles, while the editing and pace of the action seem to wander over landscapes and through interiors just as Cáit does. There are no drone or helicopter shots, no God’s-eye view of exteriors. We are grounded just as she is, and we see the world as she does.
Shot in a 4:3 “Academy” aspect ratio, the squared-off framing and boxed-in quality of the imagery shows us the limits of a child’s world. Cáit can roam, but the spaces she moves through are always bordered by darkness.
There is some nostalgia in the framing of the film, but there’s also a kind of lived-in realism. This is the visual language of memories. You watch a recording of that time and it’s in the same aspect ratio, on video cassette or cine film. The mind’s eye recalls lives and experience of this era as a series of these squares.
As the narrative progresses the framing emphasises the contrast between the two family homes. Both are old houses but the farmhouse where Cáit and her family live is in disrepair, cluttered and with very little light. Shots of the landing show drab carpeting, old wallpaper and laundry piling up. The black borders at the edge of the frame seem to bleed into the interior of the house.
The Kinsella home, by contrast, is bright and airy. Colour and light radiate from every corner of Cáit’s temporary home. The framing remains the same, but there’s a sense that the image could stretch out to widescreen at any moment. This possibility is there because for the first time there are possibilities for Cáit.
Colm Bairéad doesn’t go in for anything as showy as that, however. There are no Frank Tashlin cartoonish flourishes here. An Cailin Ciúin is delicate, beautiful filmmaking from beginning to end.
The care and craft of Bairéad’s direction is met by some truly wonderful performances. The Kinsellas, Seán and Eibhlín (Andrew Bennett and Carrie Crowley), are pitched like so many storybook parents of Little Orphan Girls: she is attentive and nurturing, while he appears stern and distant at first. The gradual thawing of the relationship between Cáit and the Kinsellas is portrayed elegantly through simple gestures that take on immense emotional significance.
Young Catherine Clinch, as the film’s title suggests, does so much between the dialogue. Cáit’s growing sense of happiness and comfort is shown to us in the straightening of her shoulders or a spring in her step. The movement from uneasy and awkward silences to easygoing laughter as the summer progresses is a joy.
A series of remarkable scenes show Cáit running to the Kinsellas’ post box as Seán times her. Slow motion and low-angled views of a laneway lined with tall greener-than-green foliage captures that summer feeling of childhood, those days that seemed to go on forever and the kind of memory that comes haunting again and again later in life.
Indeed, _An Cailin Ciúin’_s most touching and memorable scenes aren’t so much whole sequences as moments: Seán and Cáit racing with brushes in the cow shed, Eibhlín combing Cáit’s hair in the morning; Seán fastening a button on Cáit’s coat after a particularly poignant exchange at the beach. The seeming simplicity of such scenes is made possible by some heavyweight filmmaking from all involved.
Late in the film, a montage flashes back to many of these moments. One shot of a Kimberley biscuit on a table nearly reduced me to a blubbering mess. Seconds later, I was in tears as the film reached a devastating climax.
Cáit is left back with her family and the Kinsellas begin the journey home. Cáit chases after Seán and Eibhlín, and that’s where the montage featuring the custard cream comes in. At the end of the laneway, Seán turns to embrace Cáit, and she rests her head on his shoulder looking back at her own father as he follows her down the lane.
“Daddy”, she says through tears, repaying the Kinsellas in kind for their acceptance of her. They made her whole and now Cáit is doing the same. To me, the credits were a blur through tears. Truly, an exceptional and resonant gem of a film.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 11.55am on 18 May 2022 to reflect the correct county in which the film was set. We apologise for the error.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 20.57pm on 22 May 2022 to reflect that the biscuit on the table was a Kimberley, not a custard creme. We apologise for the error.