LOLA: a dark alt-history time-travel caper

Imagining a world in which the Nazis won World War II, this fanciful sci-fi is more concerned with its core concept than with its characters – but there are pleasures to be had in the performances and the darkly funny songs.

5 April 2023

By Josh Slater-Williams

Stefanie Martini and Emma Appleton as Martha and Thomasina in LOLA (2022)
Sight and Sound

Partly shot on 16mm with a Bolex camera, Andrew Legge’s resourceful sci-fi LOLA blends time travel with found footage to engaging effect. It begins with a framing device set in the modern day: the film we’re about to see is in fact a broadcast recorded in 1941.

At this point in the Second World War, two sisters, Thomasina (Emma Appleton) and Martha (Stefanie Martini), have created a large machine, LOLA, that can intercept future audiovisual broadcasts, allowing them to document the music of as-yet-unborn musicians such as David Bowie and Bob Dylan – and to receive Nazi telecommunications. Realising the machine’s potential for the Allied war effort, the sisters send anonymous warnings about imminent bombings, earning them the moniker ‘the Angel of Portobello’; they’re quickly recruited to assist the military.

Britain’s fortunes against the Nazis rapidly improve, but we see the first hint of unintended consequences when Martha tries to pick up Bowie broadcasts from previously working coordinates, only to be greeted with a fascist pop song called ‘To the Gallows’, by fictional artist Reginald Watson – written and performed by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon (also behind the film’s score and another darkly funny in-universe tune, ‘The Sound of Marching Feet’). German forces, having found out about LOLA and laid a trap, soon infiltrate Britain. The altered timeline is now reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s counterfactual 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle.

Framed as having been assembled by Martha many years on from Britain’s invasion, to be transmitted back to LOLA as a warning, the film-within-the-film largely charts how the unintended alteration of the future has affected the characters in the 1940s. Contemporary newsreel footage (modified à la Woody Allen’s Zelig, 1983) is inserted at regular intervals; room is made for brief personal scenes, such as Martha’s blossoming romance with a lieutenant (Rory Fleck Byrne), but fitting in all the momentous historical changes means relatively little space for conventional drama.

As such, the sisters’ relationship feels underdeveloped, with Martha’s narration doing a lot of the heavy lifting in fleshing out their characters. Still, Martini and Appleton’s screen presences are sufficiently intense to make up for this brisk film’s focus on narrative conceit at the expense of emotional throughline. Appleton’s body language and particularly expressive eyes would be very much at home in a silent cinema pastiche, should Legge and co-writer Angeli Macfarlane have any more alt-history ideas in their back pockets.

LOLA is in UK cinemas from Friday.

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