Rewriting the Future, Undoing the Past
by Mihai Fulger
The International Critics’ Prize at the 34th Ljubljana International Film Festival was awarded to a debut feature that demonstrates remarkable mastery of found footage, temporal paradox, and alternative history narrations, with a daring black-and-white visual concept grounded in a noticeable passion for cinema. Andrew Legge’s LOLA, an Irish-British co-production, resorts to genre tropes and maintains a fast pace to enthrall the audience, raising at the same time some fundamental ethical dilemmas.
The convention we must accept from the beginning is that the film we are watching consists of a cache of reels recorded in 1941 and uncovered 80 years later in the cellar of a Sussex country house. The house was once the home of the Hanbury sisters, Martha “Mars” (Stefanie Martini) and Thomasina “Thom” (Emma Appleton). Self-educated orphans, the two girls grew into technological geniuses. Thom, the most tech-savvy of the two, invented the machine able to receive radio waves from the future, named LOLA in honour of their mother and switched on for the first time in October 1938, and, for her sister, a portable video camera also recording sound. Another convention we must accept is that most of the footage on the screen was filmed with that ahead-of-its-time device, mostly, but not exclusively, by Mars. She is also the one who conceives a love letter to Thom, in a desperate attempt to undo the past.
Besides discovering in awe, a few decades in advance, the wonders of modern pop culture, the sisters start using LOLA to save thousands of British lives claimed by the German Blitz, by transmitting warning messages through the piped gas network. Eventually, in June 1941, smart and handsome military intelligence lieutenant Sebastian Holloway (Rory Fleck Byrne), conveniently followed by a colleague acting as a cameraman, manages to trace the signal source and uncover the mysterious “Angel(s) of Portobello”. His commanding officer, Major Henry Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan), agrees reluctantly to a joint operation codenamed “Chrono”: Holloway coordinates the significant information obtained by Thom thanks to LOLA and subsequently transmits it to his superiors.
When their combined efforts change the course of the war in favour of the British army (for which Cobcroft is more than happy to take all the credit), the whole nation celebrates the victories (an opportunity for Legge to make spectacular use of archival footage). Unfortunately, success comes with sacrifices (both collateral victims and offbeat stars of the world to come). Moreover, the Germans learn of Britain’s secret weapon, and, while Sebastian and Mars are too busy falling in love, blinded-by-euphoria Thom fails to check the signature code of a bogus signal, thus misleading the army and paving the way for the Nazis’ invasion.
In LOLA, we can easily identify potential influences, ranging from some expected cult films (Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Woody Allen’s Zelig, or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) to other surprising ones, such as Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (“You Really Got Me”, the hit written by The Kinks’ Ray Davies, performed by Mars accompanied on the piano by Thom, starts a rock’n’roll craze) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (the closing shot). The director does not hide his influences; for example, an intertitle echoes the subtitle of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Thus, the faux-found footage film gradually turns from a sisterly love letter into Andrew Legge’s love letter to cinema.
LOLA, penned by the Irish director together with Angeli Macfarlane, is also the fruit of extensive research, revealed not only by the amazing archival footage but also by the clever hints to documented events, such as the “20 July plot” and the main reason why the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler failed.
A very ambitious and well-crafted debut feature, LOLA delivers a captivating “What If” story in an eye-catching style. We can expect other great things from Andrew Legge in the future.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2023