“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”— Maya Angelou.
We take our memory for granted… until we start to lose pieces of it. Such is the relentless path of dementia, the uncontrollable demon that shreds Maud’s memory until past and present become indistinguishable. Maud is the protagonist in Elizabeth Is Missing, a 90-minute drama produced in 2019 by STV Productions and BBC One and debuting stateside on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 Central.
Adapted from Emma Healey’s acclaimed 2014 novel by director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Andrea Gibb, the film stars two-time Academy Award®-winning actress Glenda Jackson as the cantankerous mom and grandmother who is determined, despite her fractured memory, to solve the recent disappearance of her best friend, Elizabeth, and that of her older sister, Sukey, who vanished mysteriously 70 years before in 1949.
Casting Glenda Jackson in the title role in Elizabeth Is Missing pretty much guarantees a no holds barred depiction of the downside of aging and dementia, and Jackson doesn’t disappoint. During her youthful stint on stage and in the cinema, actress Glenda Jackson was a force to be reckoned with. Earthy and compelling, her performances won her Academy Awards® for Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973).
In 1992, she segued from acting to politics and served multiple back-to-back terms in the House of Commons. Twenty-three years later, Jackson resumed her acting career on stage in London and New York with award-worthy performances in Three Tall Women and King Lear and on TV (following its BBC TV debut in December 2019, Elizabeth Is Missing earned Jackson Best Actress BAFTA TV and International Emmy® Awards).
Jackson takes no prisoners as feisty, irascible Maud, a woman slowly disappearing in the fog of dementia. Exasperated by her over-protective daughter, doting granddaughter and condescending home health aide, Maud struggles to justify her memory lapses and idiosyncratic behavior and get on with life until she makes a startling discovery in her best friend’s garden… and then that friend, Elizabeth, suddenly goes missing. These shocks trigger flashbacks from Maud’s adolescence and young adulthood, a happy time darkened by the mysterious disappearance of her beloved older sister, Sukey.
Determined to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she believes to be a victim of foul play, and also to make sense of Sukey’s long ago disappearance, Maud arranges and disarranges clues on paper (prompted by the reminder notes positioned around her house) and leaves no stone unturned until her clues and her resolve begin to pay off. Seventy years separate the disappearances of Elizabeth and Sukey, yet Maud’s deep feelings for both women and her cries for answers and closure are finally heard and heeded.
Elizabeth Is Missing is essentially the story of three “missing” women, Elizabeth, Sukey and Maud, all of whom are victims of circumstances beyond their control. The film has much to say about the physical and emotional challenges faced by the elderly, especially those suffering from dementia: the soul-crushing pain of being sidelined and rendered invisible; the collateral damage of isolation and loneliness; and the frustration of trying to live independently with a body and mind that no longer works well enough to make that possible. While this may sound off-putting, it is a wake-up call that, in the hands of Glenda Jackson, is not to be missed or dismissed.
Not only a must-see for Glenda Jackson fans like me, who continue to be lured by her fearlessness and the danger lurking in all of her portrayals, Elizabeth Is Missing is a surefire evergreen programmer for family counseling and caregiver training sessions, and college and university sociology, psychology and med school classes dealing with ageism, Alzheimer’s and other forms of age-related disabilities.
Elizabeth Is Missing premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 3, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 Central. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece and the PBS Video app for streaming info, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability. –Judith Trojan