An Cailín Ciúin
Director: Colm Bairéad
Talent: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett
Release Date: May 13
A well-made film from a child’s perspective can be a powerful thing. It suddenly launches us back into a time when the world of adults was full of intrigue and formidable unknowns.
This film perfectly embodies the furtive watchfulness of childhood, thanks to astute direction from Bairéad and a wonderfully guileless performance from newcomer Catherine Clinch, the best and most natural performance in a film full of great ones. She conveys so much while hardly saying anything through expressive interiority.
Based on Claire Keegan’s much lauded novella Foster, this film is largely faithful to that muted yet powerful book, with the exception of some artistic license. Some moments of ambiguity in the book are refashioned into more definite interpretations, especially the overpowering ending. Most of the dialogue is in Irish, making it the first Irish-language film to premiere at The Berlin Film Festival, where it went on to win.
There’s not much in the way of a plot. In fact, the narrative is essentially a commonplace situation: Cáit (Clinch) is sent to her aunt and uncle’s house for the summer. Her family’s household is overrun with children (with another on the way) and they’re in a state of penury due to the many vices of Cáit’s dangerously feckless father. With her relatives, Cáit soon finds herself the recipient of the familial love of which she’s been deprived. However, this seemingly open couple are harbouring a secret.
Made in the midst of intense Covid regulations, the filmmakers have made a virtue of the isolation, making Cáit’s newfound household a timeless idyll hidden away from the world’s rawness.
Finding yourself in a new environment as a child can have a transformative effect. A new household can mean a new philosophy, a new lens on the world. While Cáit is warmly embraced by her aunt Eibhlín, her Uncle Seán seems more remote. But his gruffness is stemming from self-preservation due to loss. His standoffishness slowly softens. What gives the film texture is the fact that the couple are not without their flaws. Seán’s ways of showing love are gestural and indirect, most amusingly and movingly when he places a Kimberly biscuit in front of Cáit, by way of reparation after losing his temper.
Although they are kindly, Cáit’s relatives don’t lack for complexity. They have contradictory belief systems. Eibhlín tells Cáit that there are no secrets in her house because “where there’s secret, there’s shame”. Elsewhere, Seán recommends a personal credo based around quietude and stoicism: “Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.” A house where people can differ is a house where freedom reigns, a good initiation into adulthood.
This is a work of understatement, so much so that at times you might feel it borders on uneventfulness, but this is all part of its grand plan. We realise at the end that this film has worked some very quiet, yet very potent, magic on us. Through Cáit, we’ve been experiencing the quotidian nature of a loving home, but now the summer holidays are over. Cold hard reality beckons.
And then there’s the emotional catharsis of the last scene. A deluge of tears is to be very much expected. Just hope the lights don’t come on for a while so your companions can’t see what an abject, blubbering, mess you’ve become.
It feels as though this delicate, minimalist work is set to make a very big impact.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Gavin O’Brien