In the race to the Oscars finish line, a film’s momentum is often key. For The Quiet Girl — Ireland’s entry for best international feature — the momentum it has already been building over the past year has been nothing short of extraordinary. Based on the novella Foster by Booker Prize-nominated author Claire Keegan, the directorial debut of writer-director Colm Bairéad and his producer (and wife), Cleona Ní Chrualaoí, follows a neglected and withdrawn 9-year-old girl (newcomer Catherine Clinch) sent to live over the summer of 1981 with relatives on a farm, where she experiences being part of a loving family for the very first time.
After premiering in February in Berlin, The Quiet Girl dominated Ireland’s main film and TV awards, the IFTAs, beating Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast to the top prizes, before smashing box office records for an Irish-language feature in the local box office. Amid growing critical adulation and ongoing success on the festival circuit, the film made good on its Academy Awards dark horse tag by being named on the international shortlist.
Speaking to THR, Bairéad and Ní Chrualaoí — who describe Foster as one of the “greatest works of Irish literature this century” — discuss the phenomenal journey they’ve had so far, the personal joy they’ve had as Irish speakers seeing their film embraced so warmly on home soil, getting support from Irish stars such as Michael Fassbender and Caitríona Balfe, and why The Quiet Girl has been described as “the little engine that could.”
Since The Quiet Girl premiered in Berlin, the film’s success has been extraordinary. How has it felt for you two?
CLEONA Ní CHRUALAOí It’s been quite overwhelming, really. Our heads have been spinning since Berlin, and I don’t think there’s a week that’s gone by where we haven’t received some kind of good news. It was such a good launch to have a real premiere in Berlin, and then we won an award in our category, and then it went off from there. The IFTAs, the Irish Academy Awards, were around that time as well, which we won. And we opened the Dublin International Film Festival, and that was the first time an Irish-language film had opened the festival. So, we had this huge profile before it was released in Ireland and the U.K. in May and got all these very positive five-star reviews, giving it another boost. It’s only recently stopped playing here in Ireland; it was in cinemas for over six months. And then we’ve had all our festival success as well — we’ve played in over 40 festivals this year and around 20 countries.
COLM BAIRÉAD And we just crossed 1 million euro in the box office in Ireland and the U.K., which is unprecedented for an Irish-language film. It’s not common for an Irish film, never mind an Irish-language film. It also means a lot to us because we’re both Irish speakers. We live in Dublin, which isn’t an Irish-speaking area, and we’ve got two young boys who we’re raising through Irish and they go to an Irish-language school. Language is a huge part of who we are. For our film to be achieving all of these things through our own Indigenous tone is really meaningful to us.
I’m assuming that making the film in Irish meant you could only cast actors fluent in Irish? Did that make it more difficult than usual?
BAIRÉAD It is a smaller pool, and that’s one of the challenges of working in Irish-language filmmaking. It is our official language here in Ireland, but unfortunately it’s a minority language and not widely spoken. But the location that you see in the film, where the family live, is a small rural part of South-Eastern Ireland where you do have an area where people speak Irish every day. But it’s a very small area. And you have other pockets around the country. But they’re kind of shrinking. We’re on UNESCO’s endangered-language list.
Was there a moment early on where you thought, “Hang on, something really special is happening here”?
BAIRÉAD Even when we were filming and watching the rushes, people were noticing that there was something happening there. You could see Catherine’s performance and the extraordinary visuals that [cinematographer] Kate McCullough was crafting. There was an energy that was growing even as we were filming. You dared to hope, but you’re never sure, obviously, until you put it all together. The real moment for us was the cast and crew screening. That was really special.
You said earlier that you won the IFTAs, but you absolutely dominated the awards, winning seven of 11 nominations and beating Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast for the top prize. That must have been some night.
Ní CHRUALAOí It was all prerecorded because of COVID, and we were finding out through a WhatsApp group who was winning. I think the first win was for John Murphy, our editor, then our production designer Emma Lowney and then Stephen Rennicks for the music and Kate McCullough for cinematography. The big moment was when Catherine won because I suppose we were thinking that because she’s a child actor, maybe we won’t get the same level of votes. That was a real breakthrough. And then Colm won best director, and that’s when we thought, “Whoa, we might have a chance at best film now.” And we won! It was mind-blowing. We were screaming between all the different recordings. We were all separated from our cast, but everyone was going crazy on WhatsApp. That night we definitely couldn’t sleep very well.
Since you became an Oscar contender, have you been studiously examining the ever-changing prediction lists from the various pollsters?
Ní CHRUALAOí Yeah, we’ve been keeping a close eye on it.
BAIRÉAD And everybody has a different take on things. We were in the conversation quite early and thankfully have stayed in the conversation. And we’ve been over to L.A. three times since October, doing all their Academy screenings and meeting with members. The reactions have been extraordinary — it just seems to be connecting with members. We love traveling with the film and talking about it and getting people’s take — that whole process has been really enjoyable for us and a lovely part of the adventure.
Ní CHRUALAOí We’ve also had great support from Irish actors in Hollywood like Pierce Brosnan, Kerry Condon, Chris O’Dowd and Caitríona Balfe. … There’s a real loyalty from Irish people toward the film.
Is it possible to pinpoint one favorite moment from this whole experience?
BAIRÉAD The night of the IFTAs — to have received that recognition from the Irish filmmaking community was very special. That it did so well at the box office here is an extension of that. This is a film made by Irish people in our own language about us as a people that Irish people have taken to their hearts, which is a beautiful thing.
Ní CHRUALAOí In the past few weeks, we’ve had another high, having been selected on some of the best movies of the year lists, and that’s really encouraging, especially for an Irish-language film.
There was a sense that The Quiet Girl was a potential dark horse for the international feature Oscar, but now you’ve made the shortlist, and with such ongoing accolades, I’m not sure that applies anymore.
Ní CHRUALAOí We never give up, and we just know how audiences react to our film and how connected they are to it. We feel like Academy voters will believe in it, and they have voted for it as we’re on the shortlist. But hopefully they’ll continue to do so and we’ll still be in the conversation.
BAIRÉAD Our publicist describes us as the “little engine that could.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.