‘Elizabeth Is Missing’ Is a Masterful Murder-Mystery That Will Keep You Guessing
The new PBS film stars two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson (“Women in Love”) as an elderly woman suffering from dementia who’s trying to solve a pair of murders.
It’s truly been a year to forget, so it’s eerily fitting that many of its finest works have tackled the issue of dementia. From Kirsten Johnson’s superb Dick Johnson is Dead and Natalie Erika James’ haunting Relic, to Josh Trank’s surreal Capone and Florian Zeller’s sorrowful The Father (as well as Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife and Viggo Mortensen’s upcoming Falling), age-related mental deterioration has turned out to be a topic on many assured cinematic minds. To that collection, one can now also add Elizabeth Is Missing, the feature-length kick-off of PBS Masterpiece’s 50th season (premiering Jan. 3) starring two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson, which poignantly conflates its protagonist’s fraying condition with a dual murder mystery—a marriage that transforms this sterling affair into a multifaceted portrait of loss.
Even at 84 years old, Jackson remains a formidable screen presence, and she cuts no corners in embodying every sweet-and-sour aspect of Maud, an elderly woman who lives alone in a house decorated with notes meant to guide her (and her unreliable mind) through her mundane days. Maud is introduced at her vanity, singing an old song (“Powder Your Face With Sunshine”) while putting on her jewelry, and director Aisling Walsh filters early sights of her through dual-paneled mirrors and mottled glass to immediately suggest the fuzziness of her headspace. It’s a formal devices that’s employed throughout Elizabeth Is Missing (based on Emma Healey’s novel of the same name), and suggests that Maud isn’t seeing things straight—and thus that everything we’re witnessing is not to be taken as objective truth.
Taking heed of a note stuck to her counter, Maud visits her friend Elizabeth (Maggie Steed), who complains about her son Peter (Stuart McQuarrie) as they both dig around in the latter’s garden. Using her ungloved fingers, Maud unearths a clamshell pocket mirror that instigates a memory of a beautiful blonde. She then departs after making plans to see Elizabeth the following morning at the Salvation Army outpost where Maud used to work. On her way home, Maud again envisions the blonde, who talks about figures we’ve yet to meet and then promptly evaporates. The next day, Maud is stood up by Elizabeth, and when she fails to find her at home—but sees, through slanted window shades, that Elizabeth’s glasses are still on the table inside—she comes to suspect that something terrible has happened to her best friend.
Newspaper headlines about a brutally attacked woman only fuel those concerns, but flashbacks to Maud’s past—which intrude on the present in ways that disorient the character, and cause chaos for everyone around her—make it unclear whether Maud’s hunch is reasonable or the product of her weakening grasp on reality. Further muddying the situation is the fact that Maud’s memories are mainly focused on the aforementioned blonde, Sukey (Sophie Rundle), her elder sister and the apple of Maud’s eye, who went missing in 1949. Suspicion over Sukey’s disappearance focused largely on her husband Frank (Mark Stanley) and the lodger in their house, Doug (Neil Pendleton), who may have had eyes for Sukey. Because Maud is a fundamentally unstable narrator, though, it’s difficult to know what to make of these notions—or, for that matter, the black-clad umbrella-wielding woman (Cara Kelly) who pestered Maud with strange comments about Sukey back in the day, and whose specter now stalks her like one of the pesky crows that’s always fluttering about.
Elizabeth Is Missing charts Maud’s search for Elizabeth at the same time that it provides fragmented snippets of her prior sleuthing into the whereabouts of Sukey, and that twin narrative soon dovetails with director Walsh’s primary depiction of dementia as a monstrous plague that robs individuals of themselves and those they love. For much of its runtime, the show focuses on Maud’s interactions with her daughter Helen (Helen Behan), who’s being driven mad by her mother’s mounting failure to function on her own, and her granddaughter Katy (Nell Williams), whose affection for Maud is matched by her concern over her decline. Pressing drama is derived not from the potential whodunit that Maud is investigating, but from the fact that Maud is a mess who needs to consult her trusty notes to know where she is, how she got there, and what she’s doing.
Lost in a fugue, Maud struggles to comprehend both Elizabeth and Sukey’s fates, and Elizabeth Is Missing blends those two strands with suspenseful grace, allowing the then and now to swirl together until the two are intrinsically wedded. No matter its temporal flip-flopping, however, the material remains fixated on Jackson, whose tour de force is mired in anguish born from losing that which she holds most dear. Her Maud is a lonely woman who’s tormented by the baffling departure of her beloved sister, and whose visions of that calamity return to fore at the precise instant she’s slipping through her own figurative fingers. Jackson doesn’t shy away from her character’s volatility, occasionally lashing out in crotchety and/or nasty fashion. But nor does she allow Maud to devolve into merely a furious or daft caricature; through tremulous body language and alternately angry, perplexed and terrified eyes, Jackson conveys a profound sense of dementia as a thief in the night, preying upon the infirm with treacherous duplicity.
In quiet reflection, as well as during heated confrontations, Jackson locates the horror of those fleeting instances when people with dementia or Alzheimer’s become self-aware. As it shuffles along its hazy path, Elizabeth Is Missing expertly allows plot to inform character and vice versa, culminating in a finale that offers literal resolution to its tale’s mysteries. Yet those answers ultimately feel inevitable, given that they’re so intertwined with Maud’s pitiable state of being, in which nothing is definite unless it can be verified via missives, and seemingly vital clues are often just jumbled whisps of memory. “Nobody listens to me. Am I invisible or something?,” Maud rails while at a restaurant, opening her mouth wide in a silent, agonized scream. Like this excellent Masterpiece installment as a whole, it’s a moment that speaks volumes about the dreadful tragedy of vanishing before one’s own eyes.