LOLA (2022)

LOLA had its UK première at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

“In 2021 a cache of film reels was discovered in the cellar of a country house in Sussex, England,” reads text that opens LOLA. “The film appears to be a broadcast recorded in 1941.”

This immediately situates the feature debut of Andrew Legge (co-written with Angeli Macfarlane) as both a period piece and found footage, joining that small group of films like Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army (2013), Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway (2018) and Chris Sparling’s The Atticus Institute (2015) that are made in the digital age, but present footage which purports to have been shot and edited on pre-digital technology. In this case, Martha ‘Mars’ Hanbury (Stefanie Martini) documents her unusual life using a portable camera that she herself dreamt up – and then her more scientifically inclined autodidact sister Thomasina ‘Thom’ (Emma Appleton) built – which, way ahead of its time, records sound directly onto film alongside the image. This technological advance is not the eccentric orphaned sisters’ only, or even their most significant, invention. For they have also constructed a device, named LOLA after their late, much-loved mother, which can pick up radio and television signals from the future (and which may just be where Mars got the inspiration for her camera in the first place).

In 1938, the build-up to the Second World War, these free-spirited sisters blithely use LOLA to discover and delight in the cultural offerings of the Sixties and Seventies, finding a mirror and muse to their own rebellious attitudes of sexual liberation, gender fluidity and female independence – and also looking to the more immediate future to make a small fortune on what they know are sure bets. Yet once the outbreak of war has invaded even the hermetic, eccentric haven of two-handed bohemianism – think Grey Gardens for young adults – that they have created in their neglected Sussex mansion, they turn their contraption to the war effort, with Thom anonymously warning Londoners over the airwaves of where Luftwaffe bombings will next strike. Dubbed by the press ‘the Angel of Portobello’, Thom attracts the attentions of the authorities, and she and LOLA are co-opted into helping the UK’s armed forces more directly against the Nazis. Much to Thom’s chagrin, Lieutenant Sebastian Holloway (Rory Fleck Byrne), stationed at the house to keep an eye on these two young civilians, begins a relationship with Mars. While the sisters’ only publicly recognised impact on the world is the immediate popularity and influence of the Kinks’ 1964 hit You Really Got Me that they have appropriated from the future, their military handler Major Henry Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan) and Winston Churchill himself take all the credit for the sudden change in the tide of war. Change, of course, brings unexpected consequences, and when the course of the war plays out differently from what the record shows, anything can happen and not everything good.

Starting out bright and breezy before occupying darker territories that expose Britain’s own ready capacity for deference, conformity and outright fascism, Legge’s alternative history is also an altered one, as real archival film reels are doctored and mixed in with new, altogether fake monochrome materials, concocting a picture of a British past that might have been, and a bleak future (our present) that at any point might be. It is a beautiful-looking black-and-white evocation of praeterite possibilities and chaotic counterfactuals – and while its ending might involve a paradox of past erasure, the film is ultimately, as its intradiegetic maker states from the outset, both a warning and a love letter to the future now.

As a tale of two sisters haunted by losses past and future, LOLA is also very much a celebration of sisterhood. Even as Thom and Mars reconstruct a parallel timeline where the film itself becomes the only remaining evidence of their temporal interventions, these sisters are very much doing it for themselves, and it is only when they work together that the world’s ills can be solved – at least temporarily, and always with a smile.

strap: Andrew Legge’s found-footage sci-fi feature debut portrays sisterly love and independence in an alternative, ever potentially fascist Britain

© Anton Bitel