The BBC televised movie “Elizabeth Is Missing” – a standalone episode of “Masterpiece” on PBS this Sunday – features Glenda Jackson’s first filming since 1992. That certainly deserves attention – Jackson, now 84, is one of the most tech-savvy and wildly intelligent actresses our time. Did it deserve the rave UK reviews when it was released in 2019 and possibly inevitable awards including a BAFTA and an international Emmy it received for it? Not really, but it’s not Jackson’s fault.
You can see the appeal to Jackson from “Elizabeth Is Missing,” adapted from an Emma Healey crime thriller by actress and writer Andrea Gibb. The central character, Maud, who transitions from forgetfulness to dementia, can be seen on screen practically all the time, whether in the present or as her teenage self (played by Liv Hill) in a parallel plot set 70 years ago . The movie’s progress is in large part through Jackson’s twofold incarnation of Maud’s downfall and her stubborn, often furious struggle to delay and deny it.
The story puts Maud in a situation full of dramatic promises: her best friend Elizabeth has suddenly disappeared and Maud is determined to find her, even though she cannot convince anyone that Elizabeth is actually gone. Maud scribbles notes on Elizabeth’s glasses and some suspiciously broken vases, and continues her investigation into seizures and beginnings. She will take her back when she remembers that Elizabeth is missing.
It’s a great setup for a simple puzzle, but Elizabeth Is Missing is more complicated than that, and while you can’t hold that ambition against it, you might want you to look at something a little simpler. Maud’s search for Elizabeth is linked to the disappearance of Maud’s married older sister in 1950. Past and present events are constantly mingling in Maud’s head, her memories being triggered by objects or sentences in an artful and somewhat overconfident way.
The mysterious structure of the story turns out to be both a ruse and a reality, which becomes predictable fairly early on and is disappointing in the end result. We’re supposed to get deeper satisfaction from the detailed account of Maud and her suffering and the neat thematic resonance between the two storylines, which revolves around what it really means to be missed.
But despite the efforts of talented director Aisling Walsh (“Maudie”), who gives the film a welcome restraint and clarity, “Elizabeth Is Missing” doesn’t hit the mark – the script is too fussy and tricky, and the resolution to The Twin Secrets with hers mixed notes of heroism and resignation are not convincing. (Walsh’s last picture, a long shot of Maud crossing a street alone in mourning clothes, has a lack of power in the rest of the film.)
But as you’d expect, it does include a largely flawless performance by Jackson that is certainly worth 87 minutes of your viewing time. (It might also remind you that despite Jackson’s stature and some highlights like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “The Return of the Soldier,” her on-screen resume isn’t all that standout.)
She doesn’t play for our compassion – she leans on the frustration and irascibility of the character and makes it clear how difficult it is to deal with her. And she communicates Maud’s flickering moods and perceptions precisely and indelibly by quickly tapping a note card when Maud connects, or in a quick, harrowing moment when she is screaming silently in frustration in a restaurant and is conscious not to shut a lot to do) a scene. Maud may not come fully to life in the script, but nothing is missing from Jackson’s portrayal.