Much has been written about the extraordinary journey that Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin has made since its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival early last year. That launch was a happy business, but it was not without its hiccups. Catherine Clinch, the young star, and her family spent the event largely in their hotel room after testing positive for Covid. “They didn’t even have room service,” Tom Clinch, her father, told me at the time.
There was no need to fear malign omens. On Sunday night the team will learn if the film has won the Oscar for best international film. They will know they have an uphill task. It will take one more miracle to get past All Quiet on the Western Front. It has historically been enormously difficult for any title up against a best picture nominee to triumph in this category. And All Quiet has the joint second-highest haul of nominations this year.
And yet the story of An Cailín Ciúin has been one of exceeding expectations. They went up against Oscar-nominee Belfast at last year’s Iftas and ended up scoring eight wins, including best film, best director and, for Clinch, best actress. “I think this is a watershed moment for Irish language cinema and we’re just so proud to be part of this,” Cleona Ní Chrualaoi, the film’s producer, said on the evening.
Good word spread. Securing a place on the 15-strong shortlist just before Christmas was not quite a formality, but the result was, by then, cautiously expected. The Oscar nomination was something else. At time of writing All Quiet, at 1/50 with the bookies, has the shortest odds of any favourite in any category. But An Cailín Ciúin has a habit of doing the impossible.
Throughout it all, Colm Bairéad and Ní Chrualaoi, who are married, have conveyed an aura of supernatural calm. Speaking to this writer at the Irish Film Institute a few weeks ago, there was barely a ruffle in their demeanour. But they know what they have achieved.
“Just getting into Berlin was extraordinary,” Bairéad told me. “And I guess, just from there, it’s just been a kind of a snowball effect. We won an award in Berlin, and that kind of became news back home. The timing of everything worked out really well. We had Berlin and then we had Diff [the Dublin International Film Festival] straight after, where we were the opening film. Then the Iftas. You couldn’t hope for a better run in to the release. The nominations have been wonderful. What has been most amazing has been the reactions.”
And those reactions have been worldwide. I wonder if different nations have drawn different lessons from the film. It feels like a universal story. But we cannot fully anticipate how other cultures process our culture and mores.
“In South Korea any of the comedic moments are just ...” he says with a good-natured shrug. “But the fundamental reactions to the film have been the same. People at the end of the film are very moved. The central character resonates with people from all walks of life and many different cultures. Perhaps that should have been obvious.”
Take us back to the origins of the project. The piece is, as everyone now knows, adapted from Claire Keegan’s long story Foster. What convinced Bairéad that the tale would work on film (and in Irish, for that matter)?
“I think I was kind of naive, in some ways,” he says. “I just had a very strong reaction to the material. I felt this kinship almost with Claire’s aesthetic – in terms of her voicing. I’m also a sucker for a point of view – in writing and film I love first-person narratives. It’s written in the first person. It’s written in the present tense. Though it’s not clear whether it’s in the historical present. There is a sense this is being remembered.”
On first glance, it is not immediately obvious that we are in the early 1980s. That might not have been the case if the film was set in the city – with more-conspicuous cultural markers at every corner. I wonder if they consciously dialled back on indicators to the period.
“It is ‘81. Yes, we went out of our way a little to make that less obvious. We did have references to the hunger strikes in an earlier cut. Just a few moments. We didn’t want it to be leaning too heavily on the nostalgia element. Which is strange, because a lot of Irish audiences are really connected with it on that front. In my mind, we are telling a story that is in its own present tense.”
So fast-forward to the autumn. An Cailín Ciúin has been selected as Ireland’s entry for best international film (the weird system allows only one title per national film industry). It has already become clear that viewers from all cultures respond to the film. But you still need to get it in front of Academy members’ eyes. Ní Chrualaoi explains that the first challenge is getting a US distributor. They ended up with Super, an offshoot of Neon, which had propelled Parasite to best picture a few years previously. It is the distributor who hires the publicist and the awards strategist (yes, there are such things). Screenings and receptions are set up.
“They tend to like the receptions,” Ní Chrualaoi says. “So they’ll go to the Four Seasons, because the food is good. Our award strategist is always connected to Academy members. And they also represent other films. So they’re going to lots of screenings, and keeping their eyes and ears open the whole time – listening to what the feedback is. Not only in our category, but in other categories as well. But we also got great support from Irish stars in Hollywood. Pierce Brosnan and Chris O’Dowd and Michael Fassbender. Fionnula Flanagan and Caitríona Balfe.”
If the film does somehow win it will allow even further celebration of a local delicacy that has already generated unexpected traction on social media. The film finds a place for one of the great triumvirates of Irish biscuitry. Not the Mikado. Not the Coconut Cream. It is Kimberley, the more austere of Jacobs’ great snacks, that gets its own deserved close up.
Ní Chrualaoi has a revelation.
“We found out recently that the mother of Catherine Clinch [singer Méav Ní Mhaolchatha], the star of the show, was in a Mikado ad back in the 1970s. We have a WhatsApp, for the An Cailín Ciúin, cast and crew, and she sent us a picture of her standing at a bus stop with a big Mikado ad beside her. It’s a great coincidence that her daughter stars in a film where a Kimberley is the focal point.”
There is a promotional opportunity there.
“We were just saying Jacobs really haven’t made enough of that.”