'The Parting Glass': Film Review | Edinburgh 2018

A tender, searing story of death and dying.

Three of the co-stars of HBO's 'True Blood' join forces with several other fine actors to create a drama about grief and loss.

Given the British background of actor and filmmaker Stephen Moyer, it may not be surprising that he chose to present the world premiere of his feature directorial debut, The Parting Glass, at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. This proved to be a treat for festival moviegoers, for the drama about a grieving family boasts one of the strongest casts seen in any recent film. Despite some flaws in the conception and the execution, the film seems likely to make an impression when it opens in America.

The film also has an unusual pedigree. Three of the principals — Moyer, his wife and co-producer Anna Paquin and co-star Denis O’Hare — played vampires on the HBO series True Blood for several years. That collaboration spawned this one. O’Hare, the writer of The Parting Glass, drew the screenplay out of his own grief when his sister committed suicide. He wanted to transform that personal loss, and Moyer and Paquin encouraged him to write the script and eventually found backing for the film.

The film takes place over a brief period of time as an extended family gathers outside Columbia, Missouri, after the suicide of Colleen (played by Paquin in brief flashbacks interspersed throughout the film). Although there are hints of the deep-seated problems that led to the suicide, that is not really the theme of the film; it accepts the fact that such tragedies can never be fully understood. The film suggests that some people are simply more fragile than others. Nevertheless, a suicide always has a profound impact on survivors, and this is the film’s focus. Their overbearing father (effectively played by Ed Asner) clearly had an impact on all his children, but the others seem to have come to terms with his domineering nature.

Two superb, award-winning actresses (one of them now also a gubernatorial candidate), Melissa Leo and Cynthia Nixon, are surviving sisters with a steely strength that Colleen obviously never matched. In a clearly autobiographical role, O’Hare plays a gay actor who had a special bond with his sister. These performers are all vibrant, but perhaps the most haunting character is Colleen’s estranged husband, Karl (Rhys Ifans), who obviously had a tense relationship with the rest of the family. One of the intriguing truths that this film illuminates is how a large extended family can often make a new lover or spouse feel like an outsider. The siblings all believe that Karl failed Colleen, but the film offers a different perspective, suggesting that their intense bond always kept Karl at a disadvantage.

As the film takes us through the minute details that accompany a sudden death — police investigation, haggling over rights to the dead woman’s property — tensions alternate with tender moments of reverie and remembrance. At times the film seems a bit static and stagebound. O’Hare’s theater background shows in some extended dialogue scenes that could use a bit more momentum. And it’s hard to know what is added by the introduction of a new character — a fifth sibling — late in the story. But despite some miscalculations in the writing, all of the performances hit the mark. As the most aggressive character, Asner could have reverted to stereotype, but he convinces us that there is a caring and hurt man beneath his gruff, controlling exterior. Leo and Nixon play their scenes beautifully, and Ifans tears at our hearts as he illuminates how the family has always kept him removed from their inner circle. Even if the film doesn’t answer all the questions it raises, it’s hard to imagine audiences not feeling moved by this very specific and yet universal drama of family love and loss.

Cast: Melissa Leo, Cynthia Nixon, Denis O’Hare, Ed Asner, Rhys Ifans, Anna Paquin

Director: Stephen Moyer

Screenwriter: Denis O’Hare

Producers: Cerise Hallam Larkin, Mark Larkin, Stephen Moyer, Denis O’Hare, Anna Paquin

Executive producers: David Shapiro, Alan Pao, William G. Santor, Andrew Chang-Sang, Matthew Shreder, James Andrew Felts, John Kennedy, Nancy Kennedy, Daniel Bekerman

Director of photography: Guy Godfree

Production designer: Mark Larkin

Costume designer: Marissa Schwartz

Editor: Todd Sandler

Music: Nathan Barr

Sales: Concourse Media

No rating, 95 minutes