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It’s both cynical and mostly accurate to observe that if you want to tell a story of disability or physical/mental impairment on the big or small screen, your chances are improved if there’s a mystery involved. It’s a format that has yielded stone-cold classics (BBC’s The Singing Detective), negligible duds (The CW’s In the Dark) and everything in-between, the spoonful of genre sugar that gives storytellers a structure and marketing executives a selling point.
That’s not, of course, to say that projects like Masterpiece’s Elizabeth Is Missing are pandering. The adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel, which premiered to rapturous notices on BBC One last winter, is a sad and harrowing story of a woman with Alzheimer’s built around a remarkable central performance from Glenda Jackson. But if I wanted to actually encourage you to check out the 90-minute telefilm, I’d almost certainly have to add that the main character is also attempting to get answers in a pair of unsolved mysteries.
AIR DATE Jan 03, 2021
Whatever it takes, I suppose.
Adapted by Andrea Gibb and directed by Aisling Walsh, Elizabeth Is Missing stars Jackson as Maud, a woman in her 80s living with Alzheimer’s. Maud’s memory is failing, but the disease is still in its reasonably manageable stage. Maud lives alone, with periodic visits and assistance from her daughter Helen (Helen Behan) and her granddaughter Katy (Nell Williams). Her house is adorned with various post-it notes offering reminders about locking the door, emergency numbers for the telephone and her occasional social engagements with her best friend Elizabeth, a gardening buddy fighting her own symptoms of aging.
Then one day Elizabeth fails to show up at one of their meetings and Maud is certain something happened to her. It’s a possibility nobody takes especially seriously, including the police. In addition to losing one of her tethers to daily routine, Maud is troubled because Elizabeth’s disappearance is triggering partial memories of the peculiar vanishing of her beloved sister Sukey (Sophie Rundle) some 70 years earlier, a case the police were never able to crack.
There are some shades here of Bill Condon’s 2015 film Mr. Holmes, in which Ian McKellen played a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes coping with dementia and, at the same time, trying to process his final case. The key difference here is that Maud, though she was haunted by her sister’s absence for decades, was never actually a detective and Elizabeth Is Missing isn’t about a professional gumshoe grasping for the last vestiges of a diminishing skillset. Maud has two mysteries going through her mind, but the movie isn’t exactly about her pushing either case forward. It’s more that her life in the present is becoming increasingly unmanageable and the two cases are dragging her away from whatever control she might have had previously. Her day-to-day mechanisms — those helpful post-its, the all-too-symbolic puzzle she’s been working on — are breaking down and being replaced by the cycles of frustration tied to two missing women and the investigations she has to keep starting anew.
Gibb and Walsh are interested in the tactile triggers that keep yanking Maud from her daily reality into memories that she can’t make sense of — the feeling of soil when she’s gardening, the song cues that immediately transport her back in time. The actual mysteries themselves, though, are treated with so much subtlety that they blur into common themes of disempowered women, controlling men and the government systems that fail to provide necessary support. And if you just accept that you probably won’t invest in the resolution of either case, and instead stay focused on how all of the themes relate to Maud’s own infirmities and her own loss of control, there’s exactly enough foundation to fill 90 minutes. Anything more than that and I think I would want the mysteries to be more gripping, and Maud’s slipping memories to be relayed with more visual flourish.
It all starts and ends with Jackson, the only two-time Oscar winner to spend two decades as a Labour Party member of parliament. After watching Elizabeth Is Missing, I checked to see how tall Glenda Jackson is and was shocked to see that she’s under 5’7″, because it’s an oddly towering performance in that you feel Maud is a woman whose place in the world is becoming constrained and diminished. She has a life in which she no longer fits. She seems to be retreating into herself, only to have the real Maud burst out in unexpected ways, sometimes with anger and sometimes in illumination. Portraits of dementia often tend toward a reductive binary, that the lightbulb is off or it’s on, but Jackson’s take on Maud is much more complex. She’s often the most “herself” when she’s re-experiencing an event from her childhood and often the most in-the-moment when she’s repeating a revelation she’s already had multiple times. Every beat is heartbreakingly played.
There’s a similar nuance to most of the main supporting performances. Behan has the toughest character, because watching her mother slip away is a source of frustration and not inherently correct decision-making, but the movie never makes her unsympathetic. There’s a lot of spoken and unspoken emotion in the scenes with Jackson, Behan and Williams, and it’s hugely relatable.
The implicit question underlying all aspects of Elizabeth Is Missing is “What more could be done?” — whether that’s applied to uninterested cops in both timeframes or to Maud’s amateur investigations or, in a bigger picture, to how family units or society at large treat people of advancing age and diminished capacity. Wrap those big puzzles around a performance as great as Jackson’s and this is a tightly told story well worth checking out, even if you may need the mystery to pique your initial curiosity.
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Helen Behan, Nell Williams, Sophie Rundle, Liv Hill
Creator: Andrea Gibb from the book by Emma Healey
Premieres Sunday, January 3, on PBS.
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