Review: ‘Lost for Words’

Television shows dealing with death and dying are nothing new, but that doesn't mean a well-wrought end-of-life tale can't stir viewers. Witness "Lost for Words," a one-night "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" offering that steers clear of cheap sentimentality in favor of black comedy and stiff-upper-lip resignation.

Television shows dealing with death and dying are nothing new, but that doesn’t mean a well-wrought end-of-life tale can’t stir viewers. Witness “Lost for Words,” a one-night “Mobil Masterpiece Theatre” offering that steers clear of cheap sentimentality in favor of black comedy and stiff-upper-lip resignation. Based on Deric Longden’s memoir of his mother’s decline and demise, show chronicles one man’s attempt to comfort his aging, increasingly ill mum and make worthwhile their remaining time together.

Show opens with Deric (Pete Postlethwaite) taking in the news of his mother’s passing by returning to her house to compose himself. There, he recalls his recent struggles in flashback. His mother, Annie (Thora Hird), enters as an independent, if slightly dotty, old woman, so Deric and his new bride, Aileen (Penny Downie), only begin to worry about her once she impulsively decides to move house. Soon thereafter, Annie suffers a stroke, precipitating her slow but steady unraveling.

The bulk of “Lost for Words” finds Deric trying to make certain his mother doesn’t lack for proper care. He is a good, attentive son, and the bonds between him and Annie seem strong and genuine. Aileen is thoroughly supportive as well. But what elevates “Lost” above the mundane is its depiction of Annie’s tough spirit and peculiar sense of humor, even after strokes cause her loss of speech.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Annie’s droll comments are intentional or guileless, but the effect is the same on Deric, and on us: They serve as pithy reminders of the world’s absurdity and our own awkward place in it. Yet none of Longden’s touching reminiscences would have much impact were this show’s players unable to convey complex emotions. Happily, Postlethwaite and Hird are consummate performers, clearly attached to this story.

Postlethwaite’s role is the more introspective, and few thesps can do more with facial expressions than this English actor. But he has more demonstrable moments, too, and his low-key approach to even heart-wrenching scenes offers a welcome respite from the overplayed.

Hird, who was 87 when she filmed this role, is even better, carefully calibrating Annie’s increasing infirmity. Through the slightest of gestures, this vet actress conveys changes in the old woman with shocking naturalism. By show’s end, it’s hard to imagine Hird simply getting up and walking off the set.

Tech credits are typically fine, with a good mix of indoor and outdoor shots. Jim Parker’s music might at first seem oddly peppy, but his score hews close to the spirit of Longden’s fine script. Alan J.W. Bell directs with much-needed sensitivity.

Lost for Words

PBS; Sun. Oct. 31, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in England by Yorkshire Television, in association with Bard Entertainments, and presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. Executive producers, Keith Richardson and Margaret Matheson; producer, Sita Williams; director, Alan J.W. Bell; writer, Deric Longden, based on his book "Lost for Words."

Crew

Production design, Andrew Sanderson; camera, Allan Pyrah; editor, Janey Walklin; music Jim Parker. 90 MIN.

With

Annie - Thora Hird Deric - Pete Postlethwaite Aileen - Penny Downie
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