By Rory L. Aronsky | February 5, 2007

I know this couple, Connie (Dorothy Bryce) and Artie (James Noble), who attend their niece’s (Colleen Murphy) son’s confirmation celebration. I suspect others will too.

Connie is pleasant and almost loving towards her niece when she stops by their table in another room at the rear of the elegant banquet hall. When Jill leaves after talking up the importance of family in an ironic tone, Connie has a lot of derisive comments built up and trickling out. That’s my paternal grandmother, Sandra, whose observations of certain people she had talked to are sometimes that way, but absolutely dead-on.

Artie has no compunction about saying what he wants to say, social setting be damned. He’s fiercely honest, and even though Alzheimer’s disease confuses him about what he remembers, he just goes with it. That was my late grandfather, William, though it was never certain if he had Alzheimer’s. There were days when he didn’t remember things, but there were also days when he was lucid and back to who he was: Sometimes sardonic, incredibly sharp, and a man to emulate because of his honesty, which never wavered.

Connie and Artie also argue extensively. There are declarations of love built up over the years that soon dissolve into bitterness, as Artie dredges up an affair that Connie may have had. Oh, it gets nasty, and these performances by Dorothy Bryce and James Noble (best known as Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling on “Benson”), and the script by Frederick Stroppel cause frozen wonderment at how striking and deeply emotional these arguments are, and at how Connie and Artie have made it this far together.

Besides cinematography that elegantly captures the sumptuous essence of gatherings designed to celebrate a major achievement within a family (earwax-colored balloons, presents with bows, women wearing loud dresses, stoically-designed buffet spreads) and a spirited, piano-led score, “Glacier Bay” has a twist that is genuinely surprising, rare in films nowadays that claim to have twists that will cause shock. Screenwriter Stroppel and director Doug Moser perform this high-wire feat ever so gradually, with words as their strategy, and it’s not a shock that happens in a second and then it’s over. This is the kind of shock where mouths gradually open, until the full reveal, and then they fall flat on the ground. It’s remarkable how in the short time that “Glacier Bay” has for itself, the arguments between Artie and Connie are nearly tragic and the surprise is cathartic. It’s impossible to forget, no matter how much time passes after seeing it.

This is also Noble’s first appearance since his role as a farmer on a British TV series called “Where the Heart Is,” and he ought to do what Louise Fletcher does: Appear in independent films often. Just now I recall his performance as the Reverend John Witherspoon in the film version of the musical “1776,” and back then, just as in “Benson,” his presence always commanded attention because he was and still is an engaging actor. He would be of great value to indie filmmakers who want to enhance their visions of what they want to make.

They should start by watching him in “Glacier Bay.”

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