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‘Timestalker’ Review: A Hopeless Romantic Keeps Tripping Up in Dark and Deliriously Funny Reincarnation Comedy

As an actress, writer and director, Alice Lowe has never much cared if you like the characters she’s penned for herself. From the tourist who develops a taste for murder on her road trip with her boyfriend in Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” to a mother-to-be whose baby inspires far more violence than just kicking around in her belly in her own directorial debut, “Prevenge,” Lowe has sacrificed audience approval for the license to explore darker corners of the female experience. However, that might make Agnes the most deliciously miserable of her creations, as someone in desperate need of love, commencing a grimly amusing search for the perfect partner across centuries in “Timestalker.”

If comedy is tragedy plus time, there is plenty of it in Lowe’s latest film. Starting in Scotland in the late 1600s, Agnes can’t escape her attraction to the wrong guy (Aneurin Barnard) and is tripped up again and again as reincarnated versions of herself can’t help but make the same mistake. She probably should know better when a meet-cute with the man of her dreams occurs right before he’s bound to be executed as a heretic. Although the crowd assembled may want to avert their eyes, Agnes locks hers with Barnard’s bad boy on his way to the gallows and finds an instant connection. Instantly smitten, she tries to rush the stage to prevent his death, accidentally causing her own in the process.

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The whole notion of soulmates becomes a form of torture in “Timestalker” when it leads Agnes to die nearly a dozen times, all in gruesome fashion, in pursuit of Barnard’s wandering stranger. However, all the beheadings and immolations appear less painful for Agnes than chasing some fixed romantic ideal, blinding her to all else in front of her. Occasionally this has its benefits, as in 1793, when lusting after a lovable rogue (Barnard) can take her mind off crawling around in subservience as the wife of a gluttonous aristocrat (Nick Frost). Yet in the 1980s New York where Barnard has become a pop star dreamboat for the masses, Agnes comes across as a truly deranged fan, coldly telling a female friend (Tanya Reynolds) who seems as if she could be something more, “I’d rather be a slave than a lesbian” without any self-awareness.

Lowe and editors Chris Dickens and Mátyás Fekete create a bit of a double-edged sword with their clever approach to time jumping, inserting chapter breaks that present Agnes in different eras moving through time while being unmoved by it in her demeanor. Offering glimpses of the future before it happens, these quick-cut montages can also sometimes feel as if they’re promising more than “Timestalker” can deliver. Costume designer Rebecca Gore and makeup, hair and prosthetic designer Nik Buck’s inspired work to make Agnes a chronological chameleon sets off the imagination so vividly that it can be mildly disappointing when the character is dropped into smaller-scale situations than what these brief interstitials may have suggested. Still, the director clearly has the deep love of genre to know exactly where to cut corners when a larger budget could only take the ideas at hand so far.

Lowe can senses when the film might grow tiresome when Agnes is stuck in a self-defeating cycle, apt to throw in a particularly sadistic flourish into the mix any time a feeling of redundancy could set in. With “Prevenge” cinematographer Ryan Eddleston once again behind the camera and musical duo Toydrum to provide a score that can accommodate all the different tonalities and time periods, the writer-director can practically get away with murder onscreen. But Lowe wisely saves the most definitive demise for the thought of being beholden to romantic flights of fancy rather than the realities of a relationship that goes two ways. “Timestalker” may get a lot of mileage out of unrequited affection, but it still gives audiences plenty to love.

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