A family dispersed throughout the United States reunites in rural Missouri following the untimely death of one of their own in The Parting Glass, an intimate new drama written by actor Denis O’Hare that marks the directorial debut of fellow actor Stephen Moyer.
Given the talent behind the camera, one would expect The Parting Glass to be an actor’s movie, and that’s most certainly what this is: set over the course of a single day, the story here amounts to the film’s characters learning more about, and dealing with, the death of their sister/daughter/husband.
The departed is Colleen, played in flashbacks by Anna Paquin, wife of director Moyer. Presented only in fleeting glimpses for much of the film – a blurred vision slowly fading from the memories of her relatives – Paquin gets an affectionate scene to herself during the film’s final moments, in one of The Parting Glass’ most touching sequences.
Her surviving family members are father Tommy (Ed Asner), sisters Mare (Cynthia Nixon) and Al (Melissa Leo), and brother Dan (screenwriter O’Hare), who just arrived in town on a red eye flight (a second brother, played by Paul Gross), shows up later during the film’s climactic sequence).
There’s also estranged husband Carl (Rhys Ifans), who Colleen recently left and feels like an outsider among the rest of her brethren. But Carl still has rights not afforded to other members of her family, which irks Asner’s dad – a minor distraction not thankfully taken to its predictable resolution.
There’s surprisingly little family drama going on during The Parting Glass as the narrative takes it characters from Colleen’s apartment to gather her things to a medical examiner (Olunike Adeliyi) who fills them on the unpleasant details of her case. Instead of having its characters bicker among themselves or dredge up old family secrets, the film depicts them as entirely good-natured people trying to make the best of a terrible situation.
With the drama pointed inward, The Parting Glass becomes an affectionate story of how different people process grief and a showcase for its talented cast. O’Hare and Ifans get some of the showier material to work with, but I was equally impressed with Leo and Nixon during some of the film’s more quietly touching moments.
“I was thinking we should save this,” Mare says, holding a half-eaten bag of potato chips. “It might have been the last thing she ever ate.”
But it’s 88-year-old Asner who makes the biggest impression. Frequently cast (these days) as a grandfatherly caricature, Asner is wonderful here as the father who takes it upon himself to deal with the arrangements that need to be made in the wake of his daughter’s death and never lets himself get taken over by grief. His quiet, even-tempered presence perfectly depicts the kind of glue that holds his family together, even in times like this.
More nuanced than you might expect feature from a debut screenwriter and more polished than the average directorial debut, The Parting Glass treads the familiar ground established by features like The Big Chill but comes out a down-to-earth, unsentimental winner.
The title of the film comes from the custom of offering guests a final drink before they depart (‘one for the road’), which became a popular Irish folk song sung at the end of get-togethers.
Director Moyer introduced the film personally at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival alongside wife Paquin and writer-star O’Hare; the three met on the set of HBO’s True Blood, the production of which Moyer credited with developing the friendships that would lead to his successful feature debut.