'Elizabeth Is Missing' review: Glenda Jackson still at the top of her game
DRAMA "Elizabeth Is Missing" on "Masterpiece"
WHEN|WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Glenda Jackson, 84 — who won a pair of best actress Oscars and two Emmys before disappearing into the rough-and-tumble world of British politics in 1992 — returned to acting in 2015, winning a Tony that year for "Three Tall Women." The Triple Crown winner then returned to TV in 2019, starring in this BBC One adaptation of Emma Healey's 2014 novel about a woman, Maud, suffering from dementia who wants to know why her close friend, Elizabeth, has disappeared. But there's an even deeper mystery that has haunted Maud for 70 years: Her beloved sister, Sukey, also disappeared when she was a teen. What became of her? Through the gathering fog of dementia, and with the help of her long-suffering daughter Helen (Helen Behan), she seeks answers. (Jackson won BAFTAs 2020 "leading actress" award for this performance. )
MY SAY Back in the spring of 2019, on the eve of a celebrated Broadway run as King Lear, Jackson said in a TV interview that "Shakespeare asks three questions: Who are we? What are we? Why are we?" These happen to get a real workout in her celebrated TV return, too.
Watching this can be like watching someone grasp at air, where nothing comes of nothing, where nothing much can. Maud's mind by increments has disappeared, and in place of the who, what and whys are mostly empty space and silence. The unique cruelty of dementia is that words disappear along with the mind, so nothing left to say either.
After Lear — performed around the same time this aired in the UK — "Elizabeth Is Missing" can't have been much of a stretch for Jackson. "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" rages the mad King.
Maud rages on about that too, on street corners, in her kitchen, or Elizabeth's garden. In one scene, she opens her mouth, dumbstruck, then gapes in horror. "I want to scream but it's all stuck in here," she says, pounding both fists violently against her chest.
Memory and emotion are so tightly conjoined in Maud's dimming mind that they are indistinguishable, at least to her. A comb, a powder compact, a few bars of an old Vera Lynn song flare up some long-buried feeling that's tied to some long-forgotten episode from her past. She scribbles a few words on Post-its to remind herself of these flashbacks. Each scrawl on its own is meaningless but assembled together have tangents, dimensions, possibly answers.
Ghosts also appear to Maud, always unexpectedly, as they tend to do. One is in a store, another her home and, like those Post-its, have something to tell her. Elizabeth's whereabouts? Some deeper secret?
You've already guessed that "Elizabeth Is Missing" is a tragedy in search of a happy ending, or at least life's validation. It's about that human need to get at the who-what-and-whys before mind and body are forced to abandon the effort. But foremost this is a mystery, or two of them: Where is Elizabeth? What happened to Sukey? Jackson is masterful at grasping those frayed filaments of memory and emotion before they break altogether. No happy ending here but you will get one of the greats (still) at the top of her game. Much better.
BOTTOM LINE Grim, sometimes grinding, but Jackson still wows.