Life After Life review I Wartime BBC drama gets time-loop twist

A star rating of 4 out of 5.

Wartime period dramas are standard fare for the BBC, but Life After Life, based on Kate Atkinson's novel of the same name, is an example of the genre with a twist, following a young woman who can die and be reborn an infinite number of times.

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In 1910, Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm and dies instantly, strangled by her umbilical cord – but she is reborn in an alternate timeline, living an alternate life.

Stuck in a time loop, she is destined to relive her life as a 20th century woman each time she dies.

Despite killing off the young Ursula in multiple ways (from drowning to Spanish influenza), the first episode is still a beautiful watch, with soothing narration provided by Lesley Manville and the knowledge that Ursula will get her do-over and avoid the same fatal mistakes as before through her powerful new sense of déjà vu.

Last Night in Soho star Thomasin McKenzie plays the lead role of Ursula in the series, although the first episode largely focuses on Ursula's childhood years during the First World War, with two younger actors in the Life After Life cast portraying Young Ursula (including Isla Johnston, who played the unsettling, bob-haired Young Beth in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix).

However, flash-forwards in time reveal Ursula as a young woman during the Second World War, and bidding farewell to her favourite brother, Teddy, who – like their father two decades earlier – has enlisted.

At the start of the episode the now-adult siblings discuss the possibility of living life over. "What if you could come back and live it all over, again and again?" Teddy asks.

Those are wonderful, exciting words, what if, Ursula tells him, unaware that the scenario described is her own, secret reality.

The BBC Two adaptation also stars Fleabag's Sian Clifford as Ursula's mother Sylvie, and Mare of Easttown's James McArdle as Ursula's father Hugh.

In this opening episode, Clifford in particular gives a great performance as the contrary Sylvie, who is at once both loving and negligent, inflexible and mercurial. When the anxious Ursula confides in her mother about her vivid dreams of drowning, Sylvie becomes convinced that something in wrong with her child.

Life After Life combines much of what appeals to British viewing audiences – a rose-tinted English countryside of old, a wartime setting, a stellar cast – but with its mind-bending, time-looping twist, it is entirely its own beast.

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Life After Life airs on Tuesday 19th April at 9pm on BBC Two. You can order Kate Atkinson's novel Amazon. Read more news, interviews and features on our Drama hub, or find something to watch now with our TV Guide.

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