Colm Bairéad’s Irish-language drama wafts in on unprecedented waves of early acclaim. In February An Cailín Ciúin became the first feature in the native tongue to play at the Berlin Film Festival. It won the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle award for best Irish film and the audience award at the Dublin International Film Festival. Two months ago it surged past Belfast, a multiple Oscar nominee, to take seven prizes at the Irish Film and Television Academy awards.
There is little danger that weight of expectation will crush this delicately beautiful gossamer construction. Adapted from Claire Keegan’s novella Foster, the film borrows the syntax of the ghost story as it works us through universal anxieties about looming adolescence. The action is unsettling throughout. There is a pervasive sense of unspoken menace lurking just outside the frame (or somewhere in the near past or future). But it is also a celebration of uncomplicated human kindness.
An Cailín Ciúin, set in the very early 1980s, follows young Cáit (Catherine Clinch) as she is sent to stay with relatives while her mother prepares for a new baby. The film subtly, but unambiguously, contrasts the two homes. Her parents are abrasive and unsmiling. Seán and Eibhlín (Andrew Bennett and Carrie Crowley), her foster carers, live in a more ordered environment and speak in less spiky sentences. Yet something is not right. Seán loses his cool when Cáit goes missing for a few minutes. When the softly spoken Eibhlín explains that – in assumed contrast to the girl’s own home – “there are no secrets in this house” we sense this may not be the whole truth.
Clinch’s excellent performance reinforces those inclinations towards the supernatural. Wearing an old-fashioned dress, her hair down below her shoulders, she could easily have stepped from the pages of a Victorian children’s story. Playing a largely passive observer, the quiet girl of the title, Clinch is well up to the challenge of communicating her unease through curtailed gesture and nervy pause. Why are there trains on the bedroom wallpaper? Where have these used children’s clothes come from? Answers are hard to come by when, as a child in 1981, you are so often just outside the conversation.
Kate McCullough, among the best Irish cinematographers of her generation, risks jarringly dramatic contrasts between light and shade in her academy-ratio images (it is time for a treatise on why that narrow frame is so in fashion again). A near-sepulchral visit to a night-time beach is properly odd in way that might impress even Michael Powell.
The core revelation, when it comes in near matter-of-fact fashion, does not take us towards anything otherworldly, but Bairéad continues to approach reality from an oblique angle. Stephen Rennicks’s beautiful score builds as Eibhlín counts out her brushing of Cáit’s hair, as if in mystic ritual. Bennett and Crowley, both cautious and unhurried, convey the sense of decent people unable to fully honour their own open natures. Neither can say what the other needs to hear.
The temptation to revel in period detail is thankfully resisted, but the brief glimpse of Bunny Carr in RTÉ quiz show Quicksilver provides enough televisual madeleine to satisfy any passing Proustian. Maybe you still get orange cheese and beetroot for lunch, but that too feels like a relic from another age. Nudging the story into the past helps pull the social barriers up a little higher. It also invites the interpretation that we are looking at a memoir composed decades hence. Opened up to kinder ways of living, an older Cáit will surely play through variations on these memories on a daily basis. An Cailín Ciúin thus becomes a recreation of a perturbing interlude that also, in its unusual way, became something of an idyll. Balancing such contradictions is part of growing up.
An unqualified success.
Opens on May 12th