NEW YORK (AP) — Only one project lured two-time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson back to the screen after an absence of 25 years: “Elizabeth Is Missing.”
The film is a mystery but so much more — a powerful and moving look at dementia, a pressing emotional and financial issue for many nations with aging populations. Jackson plays a woman lost in the fog between the past and present.
“This is something that as a society, we have to look at seriously,” the actor told The Associated Press by phone from England. “It’s a big black hole.”
The 90-minute film aired in the UK in 2019 to great acclaim and American viewers get a chance to see it starting Sunday via Masterpiece on PBS.
Jackson, 84, plays the role of Maud, who is in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. Her home is covered with taped-up reminders and instructions — “Don’t forget to lock up” and “No more bread” — and her pockets are stuffed with scrawled notes she wrote to remind herself of events and appointments.
“The unique thing about it that isn’t often done in pieces about dementia is that it takes the viewer inside the experience of living with dementia — the fear, the panic, the frustration,” said Sarah Brown, an executive producer.
Viewers meet Maude just as she is insisting she find out what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, who seems to have vanished. This disappearance becomes linked in her increasingly chaotic mind with a much older one — of her sister in 1949.
The film has interwoven timelines and Maud seamlessly switches between her 1949 past and present, revealing a sympathetic and unsentimental portrait of dementia.
“Nobody listens to me. Am I invisible or something?” says Maude. Later she melts down at a restaurant: “I want to scream but it won’t come out!”
Jackson, who picked up Academy Awards for 1971’s “Women In Love” and 1974’s “A Touch of Class,” swapped film and TV for politics in 1992 when she became a Labour Member of Parliament.
She used to visit senior centers — they’re called care homes in Britain — as part of the job and saw first-hand the effects of the disease.
“The issue is one that I’ve been banging on about for a very long time, certainly when I was still a member of parliament,” she said. “We are looking at a situation where if we continue to live longer than we have in the past, care homes are going to be central to how we actually look after ourselves.”
To get into the role, Jackson consulted with the group Dementia UK and its head of research and publications, Dr. Karen Harrison Dening.
“I asked her one of the things I found most difficult to get around with was actually what motivated this woman,” said Jackson. The response was one word: frustration — that no one took her seriously or that she couldn’t remember.
Jackson performance even rattled Jackson herself. “There were a couple of days where I was convinced that I’d contracted the disease, but that’s par for the course, really,” she said.
Other recent films that have tackled Alzheimer’s disease and dementia include “Away From Her,” “Still Alice,” “The Notebook” and “The Savages.”
Brown credits writer Emma Healey, whose book of the same name was the source of the film’s adaptation, for finding a compelling way to show mental decline.
“In a way, Emma Healey used a mystery to draw the viewers in but really that was the Trojan horse to which we understood the disease,” she said.
It is Jackson’s searing portrayal that resonates. She plays Maude as angry and horrified, embarrassed and ferocious. It is a role not unlike her recent Broadway work in “King Lear,” who descends into madness.
“It is a fierce performance. It is actually ‘Lear’-like in many ways,” said Brown. “She brings the fierceness as well as the tenderness as well as the humor — and sometimes all in one scene.”
Jackson says strangers have come up to her to share the toll the disease has taken on their families, both physically and emotionally. She’s lately seen British politicians embrace the seriousness of dementia, especially in light of how COVID-19 has ravaged nursing homes.
“Let’s hope it has a similar reaction to those people who are suffering from the reality of these diseases that it seems to have done in this country,” Jackson said. “The need for care is going to increase in future.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits