When you learn that the plot of Elizabeth Is Missing—a taught BBC film premiering in the United States on PBS Masterpiece—is about an elderly woman facing down Alzheimer’s disease as she tries to locate a friend, you can fairly assume you’re in for an emotionally devastating time. And indeed, Elizabeth Is Missing portrays the grim realities of dementia in honest, affecting ways. But it also doesn’t dwell on sadness, choosing instead to draw viewers in with several mysteries as it compellingly explores memory and the mind.
One mystery that Maud (Glenda Jackson) is slowly investigating is the disappearance of her friend, the titular Elizabeth (Maggie Steed). But Maud is also immediately mentally thrown back and forth through time, haunted by the disappearance of her glamorous older sister Sukey (Sophie Rundle) 70 years earlier. There’s also the question of what is objectively true in the world around Maud versus what we see through her perspective. Ultimately, none of the answers are easy.
Adapted by Andrea Gibb from Emma Healey’s novel of the same name, Elizabeth Is Missing is yet another astonishing showcase for two-time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson. Maud is a mountain of contradictions, and the more that we learn about her current life, the more we see how her tether to it is growing increasing tenuous. She’s cared for by her loving, patient daughter Helen (Helen Behan), and is close with her granddaughter Katy (Nell Williams). But she prefers her son Tom (Sam Hazeldine) who occasionally flies in from Germany, because she claims her daughter wants to keep her locked up. Over time, her bond with Katy is also strained when Maud lashes out at her, forgetting who she is.
Maud is not painted as a dotty woman who is easily confused, she is a fully-considered person whose mind continues to betray her. She tries to put clues together to work through the mystery surrounding Elizabeth, and writes down all of the thoughts that she’s unable to keep in her head (the interior walls of her house are also papered with reminders and instructions). But the film heartbreakingly illustrates how, over time, eccentric behavior like buying additional cans of peaches every day (that she never eats) eventually gives way to not being able to leave her house without getting lost, or how living on her own is in fact a danger—despite her vehement protestations and confusion over being anywhere else.
Maud also becomes more and more closely aligned with a “mad woman” from her past who seemed to know something about Sukey’s disappearance, but was unable to articulate it in way anyone else could understand. Thus, the worst revelations in Elizabeth Is Missing come with the knowledge that Maud isn’t misunderstood, she has just forgotten that anyone has heard her. Worse still, that the truth is laid bare before her over and over again, but she cannot remember it.
Though it relies on a few extraordinary coincidences in the end (including a buried memory that brings up a whole host of questions that are never answered), Elizabeth Is Missing is a rapt tale that, in some ways, could have made for a full season of the great UK series Unforgotten (where detectives investigate cold cases and often end up engaging with elderly witnesses and even suspects about crimes committed long ago). But there’s also something about the economical 90-minute runtime that makes Maud’s story even more haunting, and the weight of her deterioration that much harder to witness. She is a doomed hero, one who is desperately seeking the answers but doesn’t recognize them when they are found. It also highlights how this is not only a tragedy for Maud, but for her family. “That’s not your grandmother, that’s the disease,” Helen tries to tell Katy during a tantrum Maud throws, where she strikes at her daughter and cries out in sadness once she realizes what she’s done, and how she has forgotten them. It’s terrifying, really.
And yet, as someone who has had several close family members succumb to the ravages of dementia, I expected the film to make me cry. It didn’t, and I realized that’s not its aim. Instead, it makes a sober case for compassion, as well as a call to action for enhanced help for those who are suffering and for their beleaguered caretakers. We could do with more patience and understanding, but also with more resources and targeted assistance. The film is a frustrating work in that it details layers and layers of frustration on every front, but it’s also simple, beautiful, and effective. Elizabeth may be missing in a tangible sense, but increasingly in her own life, Maud is too.
Director: Aisling Walsh
Writer: Andrea Gibb, Emma Healey (novel)
Starring: Glenda Jackson, Maggie Steed, Sophie Rundle, Liv Hill, Helen Behan, Nell Williams, Sam Hazeldine
Release Date: January 3, 2021 (PBS Masterpiece)
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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