Although the competition for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars may seem sewn up for Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front (considering its nine nominations overall, including Best Picture), the four other contenders should not be overlooked, especially Ireland’s The Quiet Girl, from writer/director Colm Bairéad.
Based on the novel Foster by Claire Keegan, The Quiet Girl, which is mostly in Irish, is set in rural Ireland in 1981, which may as well be 1681 for all of the lack of trappings of modern life. Twelve-year-old Cáit, played by Catherine Clinch, is the youngest in a large farming family, and their mother is expecting another baby, so there is little attention to give to Cáit, who is somewhat neglected. As a result, Cáit is prone to running off and hiding, much to the dismay of her sisters, who grow weary of having to look for her all the time. Life at school is no better, as Cáit is teased by her classmates.
Weary of constantly investing time and energy in feeding and caring for Cáit, her parents send her off to live with her mother’s cousin and husband until the baby is born. Eibhlín and Seán, played by Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett, are a childless couple, dairy farmers who live quiet lives. Although they are welcoming to Cáit, Eibhlín, and Seán must find a way to overcome their own personal tragedy to truly let her into their hearts.
Considering this is Bairéad’s first feature film screenplay and Clinch’s acting debut, it’s pretty remarkable how deeply affecting this film turns out to be. It’s a film that takes its time, revealing itself, layer by layer, in a beautifully shot melancholy pace that draws you in. Even though it takes place in 1981, the film feels purposefully timeless, the outside world nonexistent, human connection serving as the centerpiece.
The blending of melancholy with compassion and love is deeply moving and absolutely perfectly delivered by the three central performances from Clinch, Crowley, and Bennett. Bennett is sublime perfection as a man whose resistance breaks down once he lets a young girl into his heart, and Crowley will shatter you with Eibhlín’s warmth and sadness, heartbreaking and achingly touching. But it is in Clinch’s masterful, mature beyond her years performance that The Quiet Girl seeks and finds its truthful core. Cáit’s curiosity, childlike innocence, and tenderness blend seamlessly with her bravery and sense of self, as Clinch allows Cáit to grow, forgive, love, and accept love in return. It is a powerful performance in a year of so many notable young performances and deserves to be praised.
There’s nothing showy in The Quiet Girl if you don’t count the beautiful Irish countryside, but all the bells and whistles are there if you open your heart to them. Bairéad gives the audience a film filled with melancholy, compassion, and hope, yet without judgment or instruction. The ending is an absolute chef’s kiss, a textbook example of how a movie ending should be: painful, hopeful, open to interpretation, and, above all, a fitting destination that honors the film and the journey it takes.
If there’s only one irrefutable reason why the Oscars should continue to matter, it’s because they shine a light on smaller films that you may not have known about without them. All five Best International Film nominees are stellar, and I greatly encourage you to seek out all five, not just the one that’s made all the headlines. The Quiet Girl is eminently worthy of its nomination and is not only a credit to the country of Ireland but to filmmakers in general, as it is a work of art and humanity that deserves to be appreciated by the whole world.