What would you do with a time machine? Go back to make sure you have winning lottery numbers? Jump forward to see how your children turned out? Discover the identity of Jack the Ripper? Take a stroll through prehistory and try to avoid being eaten by a pack of velociraptors?
I get it. When the subject of time travel comes up, most of us have an opinion at the ready. One that comes up often is the idea of traveling to Linz, Austria in 1889. During that year, the Hitler family welcomed a new baby. They couldn’t know that baby’s destiny, but we do. The question then becomes, is the murder of an infant Adolf Hitler the right thing to do? Presumably it would save millions of lives. Isn’t that a fair exchange?
Perhaps. There’s another question, though. If Hitler died as an infant, why assume that the 20th century enters into an epoch of peace? Perhaps someone even worse takes his place, and perhaps even greater horrors unfold. The idea of good intentions slamming into the mystery of history is the subject of Lola, a small Irish film that paints on a massive canvas.
On October 1, 1938, the impossible happens. Sisters Martha (Stefanie Martini) and Thomasina (Emma Appleton) successfully test the machine known as LOLA. They were inspired by their father, an inventor and passionate believer in the transformative power of technology, and their genius surpasses his. They named the machine after their mother, an equally passionate woman with a love of the arts. Both of them are dead. Martha and Thomasina are alone.
When the machine is turned on, their crumbling house in a remote part of England echoes with a voice that won’t be born until 1947. Martha is dumbstruck, then overjoyed when she becomes the first human being to hear David Bowie sing. She uses LOLA to tune into broadcasts from the future. She dives into an ocean of music and swims to the far shores of the future, content to leave 1938 behind.
Thomasina knows they can’t. LOLA isn’t just a tool that could help reunite the sisters with their parents. The Nazis have conquered most of Europe and they regard England with envious eyes. With a little tuning, Thomasina is able to discover the times and places of Nazi bombings that haven’t happened yet. Lives can be saved.
So begins the career of the Angel of Portobello, in which Thomasina uses an alias to secretly warn the public via radio about upcoming attacks. While the sisters are amazing inventors, they suck at hiding their identities and are soon discovered by the British military. Sebastian (Rory Fleck Byrne) works for the enigmatic Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan), and he’s sent to work with the sisters and apply LOLA to the war effort. He does, and things slowly but surely spiral out of control.
For a moment there, the found footage genre was compelling and inventive. Then it wasn’t. As is usually the case, it only took one creative application to put the genre back on firmer footing. Director Andrew Legge did exactly that with Lola. His crew used film and vintage cameras to create a specific feel – something simultaneously period and of the moment. He also utilized a clever synthesis of newsreel footage and lower-budget CGI to create an alternate timeline that’s horrifyingly logical. I give Legge enormous credit. Presumably, he had a limited budget, and he worked around that obstacle with considerable ingenuity.
Speaking of ingenuity, Legge also deserves praise in his depiction of how future culture shapes the present. On the one hand, just watch the marvelous musical number where Thomasina introduces the world to “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. Hearing their 1960s rock transformed into a 1940s big band number is thrilling and audacious. Equally gutsy and considerably darker is the assumption of how music evolves in this altered timeline. If fascism swept the world, it would undoubtedly leech into music. Legge and Northern Irish musician Neil Hannon collaborated to create music that’s demonically clever. All I’ll say about that is, if you’ve ever wondered what Nazi pop music would sound like, you’ll have your answer here.
Legge and his co-screenwriter Angeli Macfarlane have learned perhaps the most important lesson of a time travel movie. It’s that nobody cares about the rules of time travel or how it works. All that matters is how the characters feel about it. The characters of Thomasina and Martha are sharply drawn, as are their motivations. Of course things go pear-shaped, but as you’re watching the film, put yourself in their shoes. If you had a way to save lives, or a way to expose yourself to the greatest art of the future, wouldn’t you be tempted to do it?
It’s that temptation filtered through two strong points of view that makes the performances so compelling. Stefanie Martini’s Martha is more of a bohemian, more interested in luxuriating in new music and flinging herself into a relationship with the handsome Sebastian. She’s impulsive, far from stupid, and she dreams of a temporal family reunion. We get the sense that Thomasina is the more level headed and focused of the sisters. Emma Appleton plays her as a young woman hyper focused on the good LOLA can do, and hyper focused on limiting the damage they have unwittingly caused. Martini and Appleton play off each other wonderfully, and in their solo moments they’re vivid and real.
Lola may have been made with modest resources, but its ambition is enormous. Legge, Martini, Appleton, and the rest of the cast and crew have made a fiendishly clever thriller that explodes with ideas.* In this film, the road to Hell is paved with Ziggy Stardust.
*Lola is available to stream on Prime.