In BBC One drama Elizabeth Is Missing, there’s a scene set at a bus stop where the elderly Maud (Oscar winner Glenda Jackson) offers advice to a bruised woman sat crying beside her, assuming that she’s having “man trouble”. Moments later, she remembers who the woman is: Helen, her adult daughter, whose bruises (it’s implied) Maud herself inflicted.
Adapted from Emma Healey’s bestselling novel of the same name, the powerful 90-minute drama looks at the impact that dementia and Alzheimer’s has on a person and their family and friends. Jackson, returning to television for the first time in 25 years, plays a dual portrait: Maud – who loves her children, her independence, and her cheeky granddaughter – and Maud’s disease, Alzheimer’s (specified in the series although never in the book), which causes her to lash out, smash plates, hit her long-suffering daughter, and forget why her best friend Elizabeth (Maggie Steed) has gone missing.
The show is a whodunnit with a twist, as our unreliable narrator Maud struggles to remember what’s happened to Elizabeth, while memories of her elder sister Sukey, who disappeared in 1949, continue to haunt her as the two timelines bleed into one another.
Jackson, the drama’s core, is predictably brilliant when portraying Maud’s violent outbursts, but she’s just as good when playing up the character’s caustic comedy bits.
“Bugger that for a game of soldiers,” she tells a friendly charity shop worker.
“I wouldn’t get in a car with you if you were Sterling bloody Moss,” she quips when a police officer offers her a lift home.
As in the book, we’re never on firm footing, always unsure of what has and hasn’t been said or done before. Like Maud, we’re disoriented when she visits a police station to report Elizabeth’s disappearance, only to discover she visited the day before. “Yesterday? Was I here yesterday?” Maud asks, uneasy but defiant.
She keeps buying tinned peach slices, even though she has cupboards full at home (a running visual gag), and the only way she can try to keep track of her missing person investigation is to keep pockets full of Post-its. In one touching scene, she and her granddaughter Katy (played by Nell Williams) try to sort through the notes, spreading them out on Maud’s table at home, with the rebellious Katy (all thick eyeliner and mini shorts) nothing but patient.
As the show goes on, the cracks between Maud’s past and present begin to widen, as characters from her teenage years — her sister, her father, Sukey’s dodgy husband Frank — appear to her. For those who wondered how the book’s unusual narrative structure would translate onscreen, Jackson and director Aisling Walsh beautifully portray an elderly woman untethered in time, with scenes showing the older Maud curled up in bed with Sukey (Sophie Rundle), and the older and younger Mauds lying down, caressing the missing Sukey’s blue silk dress.
Gentleman Jack’s Sophie Rundle is perfectly cast as the glamorous Sukey, as are Sanditon’s Mark Stanley as Frank and Liv Hill, star of the acclaimed and harrowing three-parter Three Girls, as Young Maud. It’s only a shame we don’t see more of them.
Of course, cramming a novel with two separate timelines into 90 minutes was never going to be easy, and fans of the book may be disappointed with some of the scenes and revelations lost in the show. Notably the “mad woman”, who lurks on the periphery of young Maud’s life in 1949, loses her emotional significance in the television drama, as screenwriter Andrea Gibb completely cuts the character’s mysterious connection to Douglas (Neil Pendleton), the lodger in Maud’s family home.
There’s also a moment of levity in the book where Maud mistakes Katy for Helen’s lazy employee, pointing out that she never does any housework, which Helen finds hilarious — but in the show, the moment takes on a much more serious tone.
However, if anyone is qualified to pass judgement on how the adaptation compares to the book, it’s author Emma Healey, who attended the recent BBC screening. Asked for her thoughts on the Jackson drama, she tearfully described it as “incredible,” before adding: “I’m so moved.”
It seemed to be a sentiment shared by everyone in attendance — as was the prediction that, come awards season, the 83-year-old Jackson will no doubt be adding a clutch of trophies to her already crowded mantlepiece.
Elizabeth Is Missing airs at 9/8c on Sunday 3rd January 2021 on PBS Masterpiece in the US
Elizabeth Is Missing aired on Sunday 8th December 2019 on BBC One in the UK