The Parting Glass is the debut feature from Stephen Moyer, a familiar tale of the grieving process. It’s a film that feels incredibly natural and real due to Denis O’Hare’s script. He also stars too and it’s clear that he drew on his own experiences of losing his sister in 2010. As the characters all squabble, laugh, reminisce and shout over each other, they resemble an authentic family, even if that makes them a little obnoxious at times. O’Hare paints his characters in shades of grey as that’s what people are like. Although the film doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it carefully balances intelligent humour with wistful sadness to create a rewarding picture.
In the middle of quiet, frosty Missouri, a family reunites in terrible circumstances: their youngest, Colleen (Anna Paquin), has recently died in her single apartment and they’re travelling there to clear it out. Aging father Tommy (Ed Asner) heads the irascible and excitable sibling trio of Dan (Denis O’Hare), Mare (Cynthia Nixon) and Al (Melissa Leo) who are joined by Colleen’s disaffected husband Karl (Rhys Ifans). This disparate gang travel across the state, stopping in various backwater diners and motels, bickering and gossiping constantly throughout. However, there’s a growing sense that agitation is building between the group, despite their shared grief.
Tommy is the patriarch, a stubborn, occasionally prickly, man whose slow-burning devastation at his daughter’s death is heart-breaking. Dan is an actor living in New York, acquainted with the finer things in life. He is in constant conversation with his bubbly, less sophisticated sisters, recounting stories and quarrelling. They are obviously very close and their intricate, interruptive dialogue is very impressive. Karl struggles as the outsider to this family unit, often awkwardly hovering around or the subject of snide remarks from the siblings. Through this all we get an opaque, fractured view of Colleen through flashbacks, though we may only see half of her face in one scene and her out of focus in another, symbolising the elusive nature of memory.
The Parting Glass succeeds in creating a genuine family portrait at a difficult time. There are no moments of melodrama, no clear delineations of good and bad, but a genuine portrayal of a fractious yet tight family unit. The script carefully builds the family dynamic giving a holistic view of the characters, their idiosyncrasies and their biases. The fragmented way in which Colleen is presented is excellent as each character remembers times with her, both good and bad. Although we rarely see her, by the end of the film you can piece her together through these flashbacks and the stories that are told about her. This makes a video taken prior to her death all the more poignant when it’s shown climactically.
All of the performances are strong and often seem improvised which is a credit to the script for creating such naturalistic dialogue. At times, the film could pass for a fly-on-the-wall documentary if it wasn’t shot with such precision. Guy Godfree brings dreary diners and the frozen Midwest to life with his cinematography which never grabs your attention but quietly does its job to make this dialogue-focused film cinematic.
The Parting Glass is a poised debut from Stephen Moyer. There is a naturalness that permeates the entire film, spawned from the realistic dialogue. It’s a touching tale of loss that casts its characters in a true light, assigning them flaws and offering them sympathy in equal measures. As the disparate strands of the family and Colleen’s life are steadily brought together, the emotional pay off is great, even if some are left loose at the film’s conclusion.
Ewan Wood | ★★★1/2
Drama | USA, 2018 | 15 | Edinburgh Film Festival | Dir.Stephen Moyer | Denis O’Hare, Melissa Leo, Anna Paquin, Cynthia Nixon, Rhys Ifans, Edward Asner, Paul Gross