As murder mysteries go, this one is relatively small in scale, but you still wouldn’t call it a cozy. There are really two mysteries in need of solving that occurred decades apart, but they will get entwined in the increasingly confused mind of the aging protagonist in Elizabeth is Missing, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.
Maud Horsham greatly relies on post-it notes to keep to her daily schedule, but she still functions relatively well on her own at the start of this adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel. However, the discovery of an old lady’s compact buried in her friend Elizabeth Markham’s garden appears to strike a chord with Horsham. When she returns to visit the next day, she finds her friend mysteriously absent, but her eye glasses are plainly visible on the kitchen table. Horsham comes back several days in a row, but there is never any sign of Markham.
The experience brings back painful (and possibly suppressed) memories from Horsham’s childhood, when her glamorous older sister Susan “Sukey” Jefford also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. At the time, suspicion fell on their nebbish boarder, but the ravings of a mad homeless women keep echoing in Horsham’s head. Although she is start to drift more frequently into the past, Horsham is still determined to find Markham, to help redeem herself for failing her sister.
Missing is a quiet but profoundly sad film, thematically much like Anthony Hopkins’ upcoming Oscar contender, The Father, but it leans into the potential criminal aspects of both disappearances much more, while suggesting ironic parallels with the cruel psychological mysteries of Alzheimer’s. Unlike most amateur sleuths, Horsham has the further challenge of assembling clues from her disordered brain, before she can follow leads in the real world.
Director Aisling Walsh handles the two levels of the TV film’s mystery quite dexterously and sensitively. It is often frustrating watching the story unfold from Horsham’s perspective, because we are so acutely conscious of the blind-spots that plague her. As one of those “unreliable narrator” novels, adapting Elizabeth is Missing is a tricky proposition, but screenwriter Andrea Gibb pulls it off quite notably.
Viewers might be able to guess some of the secrets locked inside Horsham’s mind, but the way Walsh juggles the two time-frames should still hold their attention. Frankly, if the subject matter strikes too close to home, you might want to skip Elizabeth is Missing, but rest assured it is never exploitative. For literary types, it is particularly intriguing for how it represents the unreliable narrator without narration. Recommended accordingly, Elizabeth is Missing airs this Sunday (1/3), on most PBS outlets.