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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Quiet Girl’ from Ireland; ‘Emily’ Brontë wanders the moors; and globalization bites back in ‘Nocebo’

A drug-addled black bear begins its box office rampage this weekend, but a few alternatives exist for those of us who'd prefer a light smack to a smash hit.

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Catherine Clinch in “The Quiet Girl”

The guaranteed number one box office hit this weekend is a film about a bear who ingests a ridiculous amount of cocaine and goes on a murder spree. In other upcoming movies, however, a delicate Irish lass finds a home, Emily Brontë finds her voice, and a fashion designer finds herself facing justice for her sins.

The recent run of exemplary juvenile performances continues, courtesy of Catherine Clinch, who plays nine-year-old Cáit, the titular role in director Colm Bairéad’s narrative feature debut, The Quiet Girl. In 1981 Ireland, Cáit’s household is a ramshackle and overstuffed place. With multiple siblings underfoot and another on the way, she’s sent off to stay with her mother’s childless cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) for a summer. In the process she has her eyes opened to a whole new world of calm, beauty, and affection.

It’s not as if the home of Eibhlín and Seán is that much more luxurious, although it’s clearly a somewhat more prosperous farm. But Eibhlín, especially, showers Cáit with the sort of everyday attention and patience that her overburdened birth family simply can’t provide. (Perhaps there’s a subliminal message about the importance of family planning here.) Gradually, the girl emerges from her introspective shell, a process subtly illustrated by Clinch’s performance and Bairéad’s lyrical shot composition.

There isn’t a wealth of dramatic tension in The Quiet Girl, apart from some poignant revelations about Eibhlín’s past and a brief conflict between Cáit and Seán. But frankly, it’s something of a relief that this tale, based on the short story “Foster” by Claire Keegan, doesn’t take any dark twists or feel the need to pump itself up. It’s a simple, short feature that, like its central character, says what it needs to and no more.

It’s also the first Oscar nominee in history in the Irish language, which must be a special point of pride for its director. Bairéad has made a career crafting television shows and documentaries in the native Irish tongue, which is spoken by less than 2 million people worldwide and less than 100,000 on a daily basis. It’s a worthy addition to the recent wave of Irish cinema, and a refreshing flipside to the dark-humored cynicism of movies such as The Banshees of Inisherin. (Opens on Friday, March 10, at the Living Room Theaters.)

According to Babycenter.com, “Emily” was the 43rd most popular name for girls born in 2022. But back in 1999 it was Number One, which might help explain the excess of Emilys in pop culture recently. We’ve recently had Emily in Paris, Emily the Criminal, (Emily) Dickinson, and now just plain Emily. (For a real throwback, check out the brilliant 1964 comedy The Americanization of Emily.)

This time it’s Emily Brontë we’re talking about. The author of Wuthering Heights, who died at the age of 30, is the most mysterious of the Brontë sisters, leaving little behind but the one (canonical) novel and the poems she contributed to a sororal anthology. This has given writer-director Frances O’Connor the freedom to speculate, resulting in a drama that aspires to the moody romanticism of Wuthering Heights and benefits from a captivating performance by Emma Mackey (Sex Education) in the title role.

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Unlike Dickinson, which freely and hilariously inserted modern slang and attitudes while riffing on Emily Dickinson’s life and work, Emily plays things straight, which frankly makes it difficult for those of us not schooled in the biographical facts to tell which parts are speculative and which aren’t. It seems as if the biggest leaps O’Connor takes involve Emily’s romantic relationship with her curate father’s assistant William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and her intense sibling bond with her dissolute brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). The thrust is that these two must have largely inspired the characters of Edgar and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Emily herself is a misfit, chafing against the restrictions of her time and place, but most comfortable when spinning stories with her sisters or, as in the film’s most revealing scene, playing games of masquerade. Mackey is well-cast, bringing a wide-eyed intensity and a smirking derision to Emily’s generally awkward interactions with the wider world.

As an effort to interrogate the story of one of English literature’s most enigmatic authors, Emily will be of most interest to those with a preconceived image of its subject. As an effort to capture the sorts of pressures and frustrations faced by a woman bursting with creativity in the Victorian era, it paints a vivid picture. (Opens on Friday, Feb. 24, at Living Room Theaters.)

It’s always a plus when a film teaches you a new word. For instance, I did not know that Nocebo is basically the opposite of a placebo: a harmless substance that has negative effects because of a patient’s negative expectations.

Nocebo is also the title of a film, one that might be categorized as “globalization horror.” In its opening scene, we meet Christine (Eva Green), a British designer of children’s clothing, who receives a disturbing phone call, has a vision of a tick-ridden dog, then collapses. Director Lorcan Finnegan then hides the ball by fast-forwarding to eight months later. Christine is still experiencing odd, perhaps psychosomatic symptoms apparently triggered by the phone call we’re told nothing about.

One day, a Filipina stranger named Diana (Chai Fonacier) arrives at Christine’s front door, declaring to be the live-in housekeeper and nanny that Christine has supposedly hired but forgotten about. Confused, Christine allows the woman to move in, despite the concerns of her husband (Mark Strong) and daughter (Billie Gadsdon). Their inability to call BS on this situation is less understandable than Christine’s, since she at least suffers from a mental fogginess and suggestibility.

From there, the picture takes a predictable but gratifying path. By the time we get to the flashbacks in which Christine visits the factory in the Philippines where her company’s products are manufactured, it’s evident that Diana serves as a metaphorical agent of vengeance for workers in developing countries who risk their lives to make our fast-fashion bargains. (In its end credits, the movie references the 2015 Kentex slipper factory fire in Manila, in which 74 workers were killed.)

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Despite the flimsiness of its plot, Nocebo points the way towards a fusion of economic justice concerns and cinematic chills, where the real-world terrors being avenged are more terrifying than any ghost. (Currently streaming on Shudder.com.)

ALSO THIS WEEK:

The Clinton Street Theater presents the 2023 Winter edition of the Oregon Short Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 26. It’s a day-long event, with doors at 11:45 a.m. and events and screenings running until 9 p.m. Among the films being screened is Joël Gibbs’s animated short The Moon Followed Me to Falmouth, based on the song by Portland-based composer Kurt Rosenberg.

Following its Portland premiere last November, Dawn Jones Redstone’s debut feature Mother of Color returns for a one-night stand at Cinema 21 on Wednesday, March 1. If memory serves, the November screening was a sell-out, so if you missed it then, here’s your chance!

The Hollywood Theatre wraps up its Black History Month programming with a trio of 35mm treats: Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on Saturday, Feb. 25; Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning on Sunday, Feb. 26; and the blaxploitation classic Truck Turner on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Look for a preview of their “Feminist March” programming in honor of Women’s History Month next week.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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