thu 06/08/2020

Elizabeth Is Missing, BBC One review - a tender but tough-minded drama about ageing and loss | reviews, news & interviews

Elizabeth Is Missing, BBC One review - a tender but tough-minded drama about ageing and loss

Elizabeth Is Missing, BBC One review - a tender but tough-minded drama about ageing and loss

Glenda Jackson makes a welcome comeback in this psychological thriller-lite

A reliable narrator? Glenda Jackson as Maud

In films, as in life, unreliable narrators are not hard to find. But there is something remarkable about the unreliable narrator of Elizabeth is Missing, BBC One’s newest feature-length drama. Its protagonist, Maud (Glenda Jackson), is unreliable in the extreme – confused, forgetful and emotionally wounded. Yet unlike most unreliable narrators, we never fear that Maud is trying to sell us a false story. She is so clearly fighting to understand the truth.

Here’s the thing: Maud has advancing dementia. She’s a strong-willed 80-something, trying to remain independent as the disease wreaks havoc on her mind and relationships. We’re introduced to her in her home, where she lives alone, and every surface is studded with reminders and labels. While working in her friend Elizabeth’s garden, she digs up a broken mirror – something that belonged to her much-loved sister Sukey (Sophie Rundle, pictured below with Liv Hill as young Maud) before she disappeared during Maud’s youth.

Soon, Maud cannot find Elizabeth (Maggie Steed). The disappearance haunts her and unearths past traumas. Maud’s daughter Helen (Helen Behan) and granddaughter Katy (Nell Williams) try to make sense of Maud’s intensifying fears and accusations. The question of whether or not Maud is a reliable narrator, in her own life, is the film’s theme.

We see this story unfold through the clouded lens of Maud’s memory. The film, directed by Aisling Walsh, was adapted from a 2014 novel by Emma Healey. In both, Maud is a striking choice of hero. Although prevalent, Alzheimer’s is a tricky and unromantic subject. It is rarely a blockbuster theme. And it is rarer still to see an elderly female character as a solo protagonist, especially in a characterisation as unapologetic as this one.

Elizabeth Is Missing, BBC One Glenda Jackson, returning to the screen after a long hiatus, is excellent in the lead. During the film we watch Maud’s journey from relative self-sufficiency to cloudy dependence, marked by Jackson’s subtle physical tics: her alternation between crotchetiness and vulnerability makes Maud maddening and moving in equal parts. And yet she is unfailingly sympathetic. The film’s cleverest conceit is that we experience most of the action identifying with Maud herself. We feel anger that no one cares about Elizabeth, we feel frustration at her inability to solve the mystery, we feel pulled into her world. Then, suddenly, when the mystery becomes clear, we realise we’ve spent the whole film with blinkers on – suddenly we can identify with her carers instead.

For anyone who has cared for a loved one in the grip of Alzheimer’s, Elizabeth Is Missing will be hard to watch. Its representations hit home: the circling conversations, stubborn stalemates, hurtful mis-recognitions. Philip Roth had that cutting line about ageing – that old age is not a battle, old age is a massacre. And certainly, this film does not spare us from the relentlessness of ageing, nor the heartbreak. Yet there is something soldierly in the way that Maud bears herself throughout the story. She beats her chest, she trudges out day by day. Her family await the news of each offensive.

This film, although unsparing in its depiction of dementia, is held together by a narrative about perseverance and devotion. Men stay in the margins as it builds its love story between mothers, daughters, sisters and female friends. It doesn’t give us a happy ending. But it tells us there is something worthy about enduring nonetheless. On the surface, Elizabeth Is Missing is about twin mysteries. It’s a kind of psychological thriller-lite. When the credits roll, both mysteries are solved. But it is the unsolvable parts of the film – the challenges of ageing and domestic life and familial love – which give it real strength.

This film does not spare us from the relentlessness of ageing, nor the heartbreak

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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