LONDON — It’s rare to find either dementia or older women featuring prominently in mainstream dramas. But in the new BBC film “Elizabeth Is Missing,” Glenda Jackson, 83, takes on her first screen role in 27 years as a woman facing the rapid erosion of her faculties, even as she searches for answers to mysteries in both the present and the past.
Since her return to acting in 2015, after 23 years as a member of Parliament for the Labour Party, Jackson, a two-time Academy Award winner, hasn’t shirked a challenge. In 2016, she played a unanimously lauded “King Lear” at the Old Vic in London; in 2018, she won a Tony Award for her role in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” on Broadway, returning there this year to play Lear again. (Although Jackson’s performance earned glowing reviews, the new Broadway production did not.)
But she hasn’t undertaken a cinematic role since 1992, when she appeared in another television movie: Ken Russell’s “The Secret Life of Arnold Bax.”
“Elizabeth Is Missing,” which premiered on BBC One on Sunday, is based on a 2014 novel by Emma Healey. Jackson’s Maud lives a life peppered by Post-it notes reminding her to lock the door, to keep appointments, to drink coffee (“good for memory”). As her forgetfulness deepens into something worse, she becomes increasingly worried about her best friend, Elizabeth, who seems to have disappeared.
Through the fog of mental disintegration, Maud looks for clues and keeps seeing characters from the past. Who has disappeared, and how? And how to chart the disappearance of the self?
The film is being rapturously received in Britain.
“It is a harrowing, compelling, unsentimental, altogether magnificent performance,” Lucy Mangan in wrote in the Guardian after the film’s premiere, while Anita Singh wrote in The Telegraph, “If you are an actress hoping to win a BAFTA in February, and your name is not Glenda Jackson, I regret to inform you that this is not your year.”
But Jackson played down the adulation during a telephone interview from her home in London. “Everyone is responsible for the whole film,” she said. “You work together.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Jackson talked about aging and dementia, the treatment of women in contemporary drama, and Britain’s current politics. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you decide to take on this role?
The director, Aisling Walsh, came to see me in New York. I read the script and the book, and they concern issues I have been banging on about for a decade. We are living in a society where no political party, at least in my country, has addressed the issue of how we provide the money to provide the care that an elderly population needs.
As someone recently said to me, dementia is not a disease of the elderly — it is a disease of the brain that emerges as people live longer.
I saw this problem and the appalling damage it does to families when I was a member of Parliament. In Britain, dementia is still defined by the National Health Service as an incurable disease, and so you have to pay for the care, which is impossible for many. And there is insufficient money being put into research.
So the role coincided with an issue I have long been concerned with. But there are also very few good parts for women, and the older you get, the more they disappear.
You mentioned that there are few good parts for women, but your own roles in recent years seem to belie that. Do you not think that things have improved?
What I have observed throughout my entire career is that contemporary dramatists don’t find women that interesting.
Yes, there have been some steps, but I wouldn’t say we have achieved the place we should have in theater or film. We are rarely the driving contemporary engine for a play.
And it is still the case that if a woman is a success, she is an exception, and if she is a failure, we are all failures.
How did you prepare for the role?
I learned the lines!
I did meet one doctor from Dementia U.K., which was useful because she explained that the anger that many patients with dementia express was frustration.
I actually haven’t had anyone close to me afflicted by this. You just try to see the world through your character’s eyes, and you don’t judge her actions.
Do you think the #MeToo movement has made a difference to female actors in terms of the power balance in the industry?
What I found astonishing when the #MeToo movement broke was the pretense that nobody knew this was going on. You don’t have to be in the theater to know that every woman experiences this at some time. In England and Wales, two women die at their partners’s hands every week, and that is not usually on the front pages.
Yes, it’s a good thing that these actresses came forward. But a whole lot of publicity around #MeToo is not the issue — we need the legal structures that make protection adequate for women.
It was an issue that regularly came up in the House of Commons. And every woman I personally came across who was suffering abuse blamed herself. That’s something to think about.
Do you ever regret leaving politics, not having the public voice you had there, given the upcoming election (on Thursday) and the fraught issue of Brexit?
I do have a voice — I can vote.
I left because I had done 23 years and I felt it was time. But it’s a total mess, isn’t it? (Jackson used a more descriptive phrase than “mess.”)
I am divided about Brexit. Personally I am against it, but the country did vote to come out and we are still in, which seems like the worst kind of democracy. But to leave under Boris Johnson, or to leave at all, is not in my view a benefit to the country.
I am hoping we will have a tied situation and we’ll have to have a coalition government. Maybe some different voices can be heard.
Do you have theater or film plans right now?
I am doing a series with BBC radio, contemporary versions of (Émile) Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, which we did a first round of a few years ago.
Radio is the most beautiful medium to work in. You don’t have to dress up, put on makeup or learn your lines perfectly.
Are there any roles you aspire to play?
But you never know what could come through the door.