In early January, WMHT and other PBS stations ran a feature film from 2019 starring Glenda Jackson as part of their Masterpiece series. It’s called Elizabeth Is Missing, and its available on DVD and streaming on PBS Passport. Looking haggard at the age of 85, Jackson proves that her acting ability is in topnotch condition, even as her wrinkled face and scrawny physique show advanced age. She embodies the lead character of Maud Horsham, a woman who is sinking, or has sunk, into dementia.
Elizabeth Is Missing is a UK production shot in Paisley, Scotland. Andrea Gibb wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Emma Healey. Gibb has quite a resume, having penned episodes of PBS series Sanditon and Call the Midwife, as well as such humanist feature films as AfterLife about a journalist who cares for a sister with Downs Syndrome and Dear Frankie, the story of a mother who forges letters and hires a stranger to pose as her young son’s missing father.
At the start of Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud has her independence. She lives on her own, with visits from aides who help her prepare for bed after cooking ashy omelets for her dinner. During the day, she walks around the neighborhood to shop and visit her old friend, Elizabeth, played by Maggie Steed. It is clear that Maud’s mind is weakening. She sees ghosts, particularly her sister who disappeared when Maud was fifteen. She keeps buying canned peaches; her kitchen cabinet is overstocked with them. When she attempts to buy a couple more cans, the cashier reminds her she bought peaches yesterday, and Maud erupts in anger at the man.
As her family is about to find out, one needs to tread softly around Maud. Her dementia not only leads to forgetfulness (She has small notes written to remind her of the many details which bring her through the day.), but the loss of control from which Maud is suffering makes her edgy and angry. She even lashes out at her loving family.
Maud may be mixed up, but she feels that her friend is missing, and that’s a very real feeling for her. Some time into the film, she does not recognize her own granddaughter or know her daughter’s home, but she does understand that something is terribly wrong. Something needs correcting, and she must correct that wrong before her mind no longer functions.
There have been other fine feature films about dementia and Alzheimer’s. All are heart-breaking. Iris, the love story of real-life intellectuals Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, with Judi Dench in the title role, won a slew of awards, including an Oscar for Jim Broadbent as Bayley. Iris is so devastating a love story that I gave away my DVD because I knew I hadn’t the heart to ever watch it a second time.
Away from Her, written by talented Canadian writer/actress/director Sarah Polley tells the story of a husband who witnesses his ever-devoted wife (played by Julie Christie), who is institutionalized with Alzheimer’s, fall in love with a disabled mute man in the home where she resides. Still Alice, based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova, stars Julianne Moore as a college professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. This film combines Moore’s acting skills with camera tricks and special effects to distort the reality of the onscreen sufferer.
In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, the viewer not only examines the disintegration of Maud’s mind. There also is a mystery to be solved. Normally, I would say that adds to the fun, but there is no fun in this drama. For anyone who has been close to someone whose mind faded into dementia, and I know this experience personally, Elizabeth Is Missing is more terrifying than any horror film. Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson don’t scare me half as much as what poor Maud Horsham experiences in Elizabeth Is Missing.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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