I’m tempted to write that Glenda Jackson’s turn as a woman with dementia in “Elizabeth Is Missing” is dazzling and touching — but it’s not. It’s better than that, with the kinds of subtleties and the lack of artifice that come from decades of performing and living according to your own standards. Right away, you forget Jackson is even acting, and you sink into her portrayal, as her Maud spirals further down into cognitive decay. The truth in the work, the complete absence of sentimentality, is stunning, with Maud by turns irritating, aggressive, endearing, frantic, and, on occasion, funny. No sweet little old lady, she.
“Elizabeth Is Missing,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS, is a one-off installment of “Masterpiece,” and it’s a brilliant way to usher in the series’ 50th anniversary. Jackson’s acting would be enough to distinguish the piece, as Maud painfully reaches for forgotten words with quiet terror in her glassy eyes; but screenwriter Andrea Gibb (working from Emma Healey’s 2014 novel) contributes beautifully to the experience, with a well-structured script that lets us experience memory gaps alongside Maud without feeling lost. We’re pulled into Maud’s fractured present, as she moves among the post-it reminders she has stuck on her walls and stashed in her pockets, but we’re not abandoned there.
The story is deceptively simple. It’s a murder-mystery, or a portrait of the paranoia and delusions that can accompany dementia, or, perhaps, both. Maud, who lives in the suburban town where she was raised, has become convinced that her friend Elizabeth (Maggie Steed) has disappeared after their latest gardening date. In the chaos of her thinking, she conflates Elizabeth’s disappearance with the disappearance of her beloved older sister Sukey (Sophie Rundle) some 70 years earlier, triggering flashbacks and a past-tense whodunit of sorts. Sukey had a fiance, and their family housed a lodger who was obsessed with her — and memories of both possible murderers haunt Maud as she continues her present-day search for Elizabeth. Throughout, Maud’s daughter, Helen (Helen Behan), and granddaughter, Katy (Nell Williams), try to help Maud through her distress, so that she can continue to live on her own. Helen’s patience, though, is wearing thin with Maud’s insistence that Elizabeth must be found.
In a way, there are three missing characters in “Elizabeth Is Missing.” Along with Elizabeth and Sukey, Maud herself is in the process of vanishing from herself and from her family, no matter how determined she is to hold on. “I haven’t lost my marbles though everybody seems to think I have,” she complains to Katy, who is rooting for her grandmother even as the intensifying of Maud’s dementia becomes increasingly undeniable. Maud certainly has not yet lost her pride or her fury, both of which have clearly always been foundations of her identity. At one point, in sheer frustration at her powerlessness, she releases a silent scream all the more potent for not being heard. At another, after Helen has locked her mother in her house to keep her from wandering off, Maud turns into a caged animal, desperate for escape. In Jackson’s hands, these moments of realization are universal and yet, in some ways, childlike.
Watching “Elizabeth Is Missing” is far from a rollicking good time, obviously, and it’s a lot harder to watch than, say, another Dickens or Austen adaptation, especially if your life has been touched by the illness. It’s a bracing TV movie that asks us to feel that pain of those on a slow but certain journey to disengagement as well as the grief of those watching them depart. It’s both emotionally challenging and entertaining, and it once again shows the range that has distinguished “Masterpiece” across the decades.
MASTERPIECE: ELIZABETH IS MISSING
Starring: Glenda Jackson, Maggie Steed, Helen Behan, Nell Williams, Sophie Rundle
On: PBS, GBH 2, Sunday at 9 p.m.