The Weekend Australian - Review
The mystery of memory
Glenda Jackson delivers a remarkable performance as an elderly woman living with dementia on a quest for answers
The poignant and emotionally powerful BBC TV movie Elizabeth is Missing is based on the 2014 bestselling novel of the same title by Emma Healey. It’s imaginatively adapted by the Scottish screenwriter Andrea Gibb (Dear Frankie) and stylishly directed by Aisling Walsh (Room at the Top). The central character Maud Horsham, an elderly woman suffering from dementia, is played by dual Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson, making a return to TV after an absence of several decades.
Her breakout screen role in Ken Russell’s Women in Love earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1971, the first of two she would receive over the course of her career. Her second Oscar was for Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class in 1973. Few actresses in the 1970s enjoyed such continuous triumph, but then followed a string of movies that while begun with high minded purpose, came to very little. It hardly mattered to the acerbic Jackson who when asked by critic Bernard Drew why she “was doing all these things”, snapped angrily “Because Glenda wants to do them, that’s why”.
She famously retired from performing in 1992 and became an outspoken member of British Parliament for the Labor Party. Her deeply held social concerns seem to be behind her decision to do this BBC movie: Alzheimer’s is something she believes we ignore at our peril. “It’s a great big black hole that’s opening up within Western democracy at the moment,” she says in an interview for the BBC’s productions notes. “The overarching interest for me is this problem of how we deal with the fact that we are living longer. It’s a blessing and it can also be a curse. We don’t know how we are going to care for people who are no longer capable of caring for themselves. It’s going to cost money, so where are we going to get the money from?”
In the TV film she plays an elderly woman living in that great big black hole, one that is rapidly closing in around her.
Maud is a mother, grandmother and a fiercely loyal friend to the bright and mischievous Elizabeth Markham, who goes missing early in the movie and Maud is determined to find her before her memory disappears.
The TV film, originally conceived as a three- part series but is better condensed into this startlingly moving, highly focused 90 minutes, is an intense immersive portrait of the disease, told from the point of view of someone experiencing that slow erosion of selfhood, her day-to-day life built around the writing of notes to trigger what remains of memory.
It’s a story about what it is like to lose oneself and still live, and the way some small essential grain of selfhood survives until the end. “I didn’t see it as a thriller as much as a mystery,” Aisling says, also in the film’s production notes. “We’re never really sure if she’s remembering correctly. What does she know? What has she forgotten about, and what will she remember later?”
We are with Jackson’s cranky but determined Maud from the beginning and we are with her at the end, journeying through the story subjectively from her point of view, absorbed in her difficult existence. She is of course the most unreliable narrator of this story. She seems to be neurologically regressing as the narrative develops, her anger more pronounced, sometimes expressing itself into terrible soundless screams, her state of mind unknowable.
But while nerve-wracking at times, Aisling’s direction and Jackson’s remarkable performance find moments of humour and even a kind of cantankerous comedy in Maud’s frantic life and even at times a persuasive poetry. (There’s a droll running gag in the way Maud keeps buying tins of peaches; her cupboards are full of them.)
She has a nice turn of phrase too. “Bugger that for a game of soldiers,” she tells a kindly charity shop worker. “I wouldn’t get in a car with you if you were Stirling bloody Moss,” she replies in mock indignation when a police officer offers her a lift home after she reports Elizabeth missing for the second time. When she cannot remember who the prime minister is she mutters, “I know I don’t like him”.
Jackson, stooped and angular, her eyes forever mistrustful, brilliantly and empathetically conveys the anxiety, confusion and fear Maud experiences in the progress of her dementia, without ever resiling from her least attractive moments of anger and frustration. “I can’t keep things in my brain,” she admonishes herself at one point. “It worries me.” More kindly, she’s fond of saying to herself, “You mad old fool”. All delivered on what the critic Paul Taylor called “that metal-tipped whiplash of a voice”, still able to deliver the most lacerating scorn and contempt.
Aisling’s film also deals with the frustration, grief and fatigue that carers and families experience and their guilt at not being able to do enough, especially as Maud’s sense of time and place becomes increasingly confused and she becomes angrier and angrier as one street looks just like another. She violently lashes out at times, smashes plates, and even hits her long-suffering daughter, Helen. She’s played with understanding and rigour by Helen Behan, a single mother and landscape gardener who must care for Maud whatever the emotional cost, her dry wit and practical understanding of the world enabling her to cope. Most of the time though she has little understanding of what is driving her mother in her increasingly frantic quest for answers.
The story is built around two compelling mysteries that intersect seamlessly in Aisling’s direction. Maud is in search of her best friend Elisabeth — played by Maggie Steed, with whom she gardens each week — who appears to have vanished after not turning up to meet Maud at the local Salvation Army shop where they met as volunteers. Their weekly gardening ritual is usually followed by soup and the crossword at Elizabeth’s house.
But as Maud futilely searches the neighbourhood for her friend memories intrude from her past and her search 70 years earlier for her older sister Sukey, the beauty who looked like Lana Turner, who also mysteriously disappeared. Sukey is beautifully played by Sophie Rundle, a young woman who dreams big and who has so much love and compassion it seems to shine out of her in beams.
Liv Hill is the young Maud, then aged 14 who adores her sister and who is determined to find out what happens to her. Another lovely, authentic performance.
As the story unfolds it’s clear the central mystery is that of Sukey’s vanishing, which Gibb develops cleverly through what Maud is experiencing in the present, in what she sees and how she attempts to interpret it.
Situations remind her in flashes of the past, objects sometimes, or images. Aisling cleverly intercuts these moments with what was happening in Maud’s life with Sukey, sometimes almost subliminally.
Gibb says it’s an example of how those with dementia can begin to inhabit their own memories and she uses it as a device to get inside the disease. (“My dad had dementia and, at the end, he was in a care home and he honestly believed he was in Africa,” the writer says. “He lived and worked in Africa when he was younger and he believed in that care room that he was in Africa. Then when I’d go and see him, I was in Africa with him.”)
The mixing of the present and past provides a tragic illustration of the confusion that must be felt by people like Maud as they try to negotiate their lives. Jackson too, manages these changes in apprehension with startling skill and mental agility. This is a remarkable performance by one of the greatest actresses of our time.
The mysteries surrounding Maud are solved by the end but of course there can be no closure. The film leaving us with one tragic question: what is it like to lose oneself and still live?
Elizabeth is Missing, streaming on Foxtel On Demand.
From all indications Nine has a hit on their hands with Amazing Grace.
A high-spirited and big-hearted drama about the lives and loves of staff at a Sydney birthing centre and the women they care for, the three of eight hour-long episodes made available for preview promise an engagingly acted and perceptively photographed weekly dramatic fix.
In last week’s first episode, which may now be viewed on Nine’s 9Now online streaming service, viewers met 34-year-old Grace Cresswell (Kate Jenkinson), the dedicated midwife in charge of St Brigid’s Birthing Centre in the eastern Sydney harbourside suburb of Watsons Bay.
She has a complicated relationship with her mother Diane (Sigrid Thornton), an obstetrician at the adjacent hospital, and has recently divorced but is still on good terms with ambo driver Jim (Ben Mingay).
Kate administers a capable staff that includes Midwifery Unit Manager and long-time friend Laney (Catherine Van-Davies), midwife Sasha (Kat Hoyos) and newcomer Max (Ben O’Toole). There are at least five birthing suites in the centre, and the trio spend their days dashing from one to the other attending to the seemingly never-ending stream of women managing their own lives while bringing a new one into the world.
Seemingly out of nowhere comes Sophia (Alexandra Jensen), the daughter Grace gave up for adoption 17 years ago. Secretive and independent, she’s about to give birth and does, completing what Grace confesses has become “a major day of significance that I did not expect to have and was not prepared for”.
On an impulse born of generosity mixed with regret, Grace lodges Sophia and new granddaughter
Eadie in the house she and Jim are preparing to sell.
“Pizza guys deliver, midwives birth,” someone points out early in this Wednesday’s second episode, which finds Grace learning more about Sophia’s life and Sophia meeting her adoptive father Kirk (Alex Dimitriades).
As the hour unfolds, Grace and Kirk form an uneasy alliance after Sophia announces she’s giving up Eadie for adoption, Laney navigates her affair with married hospital official Paul (Luke Ford) and Sasha deals with an increasing sense of insecurity at her ability to provide the level of emotional support necessary for the job.
What reads as melodrama on the page takes on a luminous life of its own by virtue of a key structural strategy by series creators David Maher, David Taylor and Sarah Smith, abetted by the skilful photography of Bruce Young.
Amid the complicated personal and professional lives of the staff, there are the births themselves.
Some to date more stressful than others, Amazing Grace emphasises all are welcome and ultimately joyous by presenting them underscored by peppy pop songs.
Young gives the drama itself an inspired undercurrent of art house mystery, photographing many of the exchanges in arrestingly angled close-ups that showcase not only the show’s ambition to be something more substantial than soap opera but the uniformly fine acting of Jenkinson (Wentworth), Jensen (Frayed), O’Toole (Halifax: Retribution) and the entire cast. Thus far on its journey, Amazing Grace delivers.
Amazing Grace, Wednesday, 9pm, Nine and 9Now.