Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s acclaimed 2013 novel that’s now a four-part BBC drama, is founded on the bruising truth that existence is unbearably fragile. Its world, our world, is a dangerous place pitted with obstacles. It’s the story of Ursula, a character born in 1910, who dies and is reborn in a continuous loop. Each time Ursula falls foul of life’s lethal traps, she begins again, not remembering her lives before but not quite forgetting them either. Her past deaths leave her with tugging instincts – don’t step there, don’t take his hand, don’t linger – that gradually extend her life and, if well-managed, those of the people she loves.
For Ursula, death waits in all places – in the knot of umbilical cord around a baby’s neck, inside a rolling wave and beneath an open window. Death waits equally in a pandemic and in wartime and in the face of a stranger on the street. One false move and it’s game over.
That established, this delicate adaptation leads us to its real premise: with so much danger abroad, our only response is acceptance and the seeking out of joy. Acknowledging that life is so often extinguished in blasé style, what else is there but to, in the words of Ursula’s charmingly open-minded child psychotherapist, try to enjoy it. Thus a story freighted by death becomes determinedly life-affirming.
New Zealand actor Thomasin McKenzie (The Power of the Dog, Jojo Rabbit) leads a strong cast as the teenage and adult Ursula. McKenzie is fey enough to convey the strangeness Ursula accrues after a lifetime of lifetimes, yet solid enough to keep the character present and believable in her many realities. It’s a quietly bewitching performance from a remarkable actor who at just 21 is building an already-enviable career.
Fleabag’s Sian Clifford and Mare of Easttown’s James McArdle play Ursula’s parents Sylvie and Hugh with spikiness and warmth, and subtle changes for each iteration of their odd daughter’s odd life. Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay is perfect as Ursula’s excitingly glamorous Aunt Izzie, a trailblazer of female independence, while Jessica Hynes is comic and tragic in turns as housekeeper Mrs Glover. There’s not a weak spot in the cast, skilfully directed by Brooklyn and True Detective John’s Crowley from a screenplay by Traitors and Boardwalk Empire writer and celebrated playwright Bash Doran.
As much as a portrait of Ursula’s fractal existence, Life After Life is also a picture of early 20th-century England. Ursula’s lifespan takes the upper middle-class Todd family and their home Fox Corner through WWI, the influenza pandemic, into WWII and briefly beyond. She and her siblings – odious Maurice, practical Pamela, sweetheart Teddy and baby Jimmy, whose existence seems contingent on Ursula’s route through the multiverse – live against the backdrop of England in flux.
Happily, the adaptation – like the novel before it – channels History-with-a-big-H through characters that feel real. Something as alien and towering as a world war is told in terms of ordinary life, through chicken hutches and sad-looking birthday cakes and loss. Atkinson’s writing is spun with dry humour and a lack of sentimentality, which has been transferred directly to screen here. Overstatement is somehow resisted despite the story’s important structure and literal world-changing premise.
On that. Life After Life takes a thrilling swerve from confronting the risks posed by ordinary days and the extraordinary harm men can do to women, to venture into spy territory. That too, is handled with a delicate touch, not betraying the everyday grounding of the rest of the story and somehow anchoring an assassination plot against a world leader on solid ground.
Very few liberties have been taken with the source material, aside from some natural trimming of sub-plots. The motif of Ursula’s repeated deaths is rendered with spare beauty as snow begins to fall in her present before her corpse is seen as though at the bottom of what seems to be a depthless well. The novel alternately describes Ursula repeatedly folding into the reaching wings of an enormous black bat, which would seem a challenging image to translate. It’s all been handled with care and delicacy, and the end result retains Atkinson’s irresistible dialogue and delicate probing of life’s big questions.
It’s not an easy watch, especially for viewers who naturally fear the dangers lurking around dark corners. Grief abounds, but the necessarily painful path this drama takes leads to an ultimately uplifting and worthwhile conclusion.
All episodes of Life After Life are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.