Colm Bairéad Interview – Director of ‘The Quiet Girl’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


A few months ago, Irish period drama The Quiet Girl made waves at the Academy Awards not just as part of a record number of nominations for Irish talent (14!), but as the first Irish-language feature film nominated, ever. Director Colm Bairéad is quick to point out that Louis Marcus was nominated for a 1973 Irish-language short documentary, but the point still stands—any film in an indigenous, endangered language getting a worldwide platform is historic.

Bairéad’s film, adapted from celebrated Irish writer Claire Keegan’s novella Foster, communicates through silence as much as it does the Irish tongue. It focuses on the remarkably common Irish experience of an impoverished child being taken in by a wealthier couple for short-term foster care, with the eponymous quiet girl Cáit (Catherine Clinch) finding a path out of her neglect through the staggered but sincere affection of Seán (Andrew Bennett) and Eibhlín Cinnsealach (Carrie Crowley). We spoke to Bairéad, post-Oscars mayhem, about the rich spell his film casts.

Projektor: Language is so important to the film, but it focuses on characters who don’t talk much. What were the challenges in adapting to film a medium where we get easier access to people’s thoughts?

Colm Bairéad: That was the immediately apparent challenge, but it was one that I relished. If you read Foster, it’s precisely what you’re describing: you’re inside the mind of this young girl. But you quickly realize that even though the girl is telling you everything, she doesn’t actually speak very often. To me, the best screen acting is that which is non-verbal, where the audience has to watch a character and figure out how they’re feeling or how they’re thinking. I felt a sort of a kinship, I think, with Keegan’s writing. There are certain writers you read and feel connected to, like they see the world in the same way as you.

A lot of the actions that reveal character are labor: housework, farmwork, things that are repeated every day like a ritual. What is it about the repetition of labor that reveals deeper emotions?

It boils down to sort of the beauty of mundanity. It’s like what Terence Davies talks about, the poetry of the ordinary. All this girl needed was for carers to actually spend time with her. That sort of thing you would have, not necessarily just on a farm, but in households in Ireland, where you would have chores or things done in the presence of an adult, and that was a form of bonding. There was no need to find the right words when spending time together was its own form of knitting those people together. 

The film is trying to replicate those silences in the moments that Cáit stands with the Cinnsealachs. It’s an understanding that those silences can have real value, and the people involved—almost unbeknownst to themselves—are kind of pouring themselves into those silences.

[Those] silences can have real value, and the people involved—almost unbeknownst to themselves—are kind of pouring themselves into those silences.

It feels very pointed when the film uses English, especially with Cáit’s father. Was there anything being intentionally telegraphed with English being used less than Irish?

I grew up in Dublin immersed in Irish within the confines of our home, but then I was living in a pointedly English-speaking environment. We have a very complicated relationship with the Irish language here in Ireland. A lot of people still have some resentment towards it, maybe how it was taught to them in school, and that it was sort of forced back to them. They didn’t quite see the value of it. People would question why you were speaking this language, that it was this dead thing. Other kids would be like, “Is your dad in the IRA?” It felt almost like an ostentatious presentation of cultural identity. But my dad is really a linguist at heart, so it was a love of languages and a desire to preserve one that was and is still struggling.

I think there’s a danger that if you make a film that’s entirely in the Irish language, that it can feel like an overtly political act, a presentation of a certain cultural identity. And our film is […] leaving the door open for Irish audiences to engage with the Irish language. It’s been remarkable how that’s been the case; people have spoken about how they’re sort of reappraising their relationship with the language a little bit.

The film uses a very boxy aspect ratio that feels claustrophobic for the characters trapped in spaces. Were there layers to what you wanted the look of the film to convey?

The decision to shoot it 1.37:1 was based on trying to inhabit this young person’s point of view. This is a point of view that doesn’t quite understand the world yet, that there are things just outside of her understanding. We were drawn to the idea of finding an image that felt almost naive. But also the shape of the frame itself belongs to a time when cinema was in its infancy, or maybe its early adolescence.

We were intrigued by the idea that it could feel oppressive. And yet, it also led to a lovely intimacy that worked really well for what was to come, for the feeling of connection that was going to filter through later on [where] we tend to frame Cáit in wider frames. In the first act of the film, she’s oftentimes obscured or the frame is cutting her off. It just feels like there’s a slight tension in how she’s being presented. She’s not being seen in the same way.

To me, the frame seems to grow as she’s growing, ironically because she’s smaller in that frame, but the images become bigger. She’s come to this place and she’s able to breathe in a way; she’s got the room, she’s able to see in a different way. We shot some tests to see if the aspect ratio would widen, kind of similar to what Xavier Dolan did in Mommy—it’s so powerful that moment. To us, it just felt like the wrong decision, it would be too self-conscious. [The Quiet Girl] is a film about tiny, incremental things, it’s not about huge grand revelations. So it felt appropriate that her point of view is still the same, but there’s been a shift within her.

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