Life After Life: Thomasin McKenzie lights up TVNZ’s dark and haunting BBC drama

Thomasin McKenzie plays Ursula Todd from Life After Life.

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Thomasin McKenzie plays Ursula Todd from Life After Life.

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Thomasin McKenzie is notable in the BBC’s four-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s award-winning 2013 novel Life After Life (now airing on TVNZ+). You’ll have to wait for the second episode to see more than a fleeting glimpse, but once she takes center stage, you’ll be captivated, compelled, and rather concerned about the fate of her seemingly unfortunate Ursula Todd.

Yes, be warned, this is no feel-good TV – our heroine suffers plenty of deprivation, indignity and outright criminal acts as she navigates through the first half of the 20th century. The twist here is that, if she dies, she is simply reborn.

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Thomasin McKenzie stars in the drama series Life After Life, which tells the story of a woman who has an infinite number of chances to live her life.

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It all started on February 11, 1910, the dark and stormy night she was born – and died.

In his first life, the doctor could not cross the snow to prevent him from choking on the umbilical cord. “She was dead, before she had a chance to live,” laments one of the servants.

But Ursula got a second chance – and this time the doctor was there. Then, a few years later, a visit to the beach ends in tragedy. However, in the second take of this event, an artist sees her strolling towards the waves in time. That’s before there was a fall from a roof, a car accident in London and more than a few more rounds with the Spanish flu.

Sian Clifford of Fleabag is Sylvia, Ursula's mother.

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Sian Clifford of Fleabag is Sylvia, Ursula’s mother.

At first, this all takes a bit of getting used to, especially when even Lesley Manville’s extensive narration offers us no explanation as to the phenomena – or how the first “changes”, in particular, might have manifested themselves ( all we have is a grown-up Ursula in the opening scene somewhat cryptically reminds us of “the two best words in the English language – ‘what if?'”).

And starting all over again from birth definitely eliminates any Groundhog Day or Russian Vanity Doll humor. However, put up with it and it will grow within you (a life is so horrible that you will find yourself desperate for it to find a way out), its growing sense of “instinct” and deja vu, which initially seems absurd, actually organically make more sense, as she gets older and more cognitively aware.

There are also echoes of Sliding Doors and The Age of Adaline in Ursula’s story, as she gradually realizes how she might be able to change more than her own destiny.

Once Thomasin McKenzie takes center stage, you'll be captivated, compelled, and rather concerned about the future of his seemingly unhappy Ursula Todd.

Provided

Once Thomasin McKenzie takes center stage, you’ll be captivated, compelled, and rather concerned about the future of his seemingly unhappy Ursula Todd.

As he demonstrated with the beautiful, Oscar-nominated Brooklyn, director John Crowley knows how to create a sense of space and place and elicit “the feelings” of his audience.

McKenzie and Isla Johnston (Anya Taylor-Joy’s younger counterpart in The Queen’s Gambit), who plays Ursula in her youth (although she looks a bit too old to be credibly 10, even 100 years ago) are spellbinding presences, while the impressive ensemble also includes Sian Clifford (Fleabag), Jessica Hynes (Years and Years), Patsy Ferran (Black Narcissus) and James McArdle (Mare of Easttown).

Screenwriter Bathsheba Doran (Boardwalk Empire) has done a great job distilling thought-provoking script, the costumes and production design are top-notch and it’s the TV drama that definitely leaves a mark.

Best consumed one episode at a time – the binge can leave you rather emotionally drained – Life After Life is a haunting, thought-provoking tale that may not be quite for the Downton crowd, but is proof extra that one of Wellington’s brightest young stars can illuminate even the darkest stories.

Life After Life is now available to stream on TVNZ+.