Andrew Legge’s Lola, a faux found footage film that plays with historical and science fiction, gives weight to an emerging idea: could this be the best year for Irish cinema? If you believe the metrics of Rotten Tomatoes, the best-reviewed film of 2022 was once The Banshees of Inisherin. At the time of writing, it’s An Cailín Ciúin (aka The Quiet Girl), a film in the Irish language. Aftersun, the most beloved of any this year, stars Kildare’s Paul Mescal. With Jessie Buckley’s turn in Women Talking leading from the front, there is the wild possibility that five of next year’s acting nominations at the Oscars could go to people from that damp Atlantic rock—one or two might even win.
A little further afield, some independent works have helped buffer the moment: God’s Creatures (another Mescal joint), Donal Foreman’s The Cry of Granuaile, Frank Berry’s Aisha, Emer Reynolds’ Joyride, and now Legge’s film, which premiered in Locarno this summer and played to rapturous applause in Thessaloniki last month. A joint UK and Irish production, it’s by far the least Hibernian of any of those titles: not a single accent in Lola would worry the entrance committees at Eton college; and whatever you thought of Inisherin‘s allusions to the Irish Civil War, you won’t hear Winston Churchill bellowing “Forward Britannia” in McDonagh’s film. But fair enough.
Lola is presented as a war film and mockumentary (opening text informs us a “cache of reels” has been found in the present day), though the shades of feminist revisionism are nothing if not sincere. Set largely in a stately country manor during the Second World War, it concerns two young women: the gregarious Martha (played by Stefani Martini, a nice presence) and the brooding Thomasina (Emma Appleton). The story is told from multiple perspectives, but it’s Martha who does most of the documenting by filming her sister’s revelatory work. A genius inventor, Thomasina has built a kind of receiver that picks up infinitesimally faint signals from the future, allowing her to watch and listen to broadcasts that are yet to happen as if streaming them live.
Unfurling over the course of some years, though running just 79 minutes, Lola works small wonders with the time-hopping narrative techniques of found footage. Legge also peppers the period setting with nice inaccuracies—two decades before Primary, Thomasina has pioneered vérité and the lightweight handheld recorder. Lola is often at its best when charged with those jolts of anachronism. With their device the sisters watch Bowie play “Space Oddity” on the BBC and observe the Apollo 11 moon landing. They ingrain modern slang into their lexicons. In a later scene they belt out a hit from the ’60s to a room of WWII officers, like Marty McFly with “Johnny B Goode.” It’s sometimes unbearable; it’s usually pretty fun.
The guts of the narrative, and the reason the sisters find themselves amongst the officer class, is a clever reworking of an idea from Legge’s own short film The Chronoscope, in which a ’30s scientist makes a machine that looks into the past. Thomasina and her sister begin using their own, named “Lola” (a little Germanic, oder?), to gain intel on Nazi bombing raids in the Blitz so as to snuff them out before they happen. Of course, as time-travel storytelling demands, that tampering begins having unwelcome effects. It’s a cute idea, though sometimes struck me as a little parochial. Curiously, there is no mention of far greater atrocities to come in central Europe and Japan—naturally, getting into those weeds would have dampened the upbeat fable.
This July, Legge brought his film to Locarno, where festival director Giona Nazzaro pronounced him “Ireland’s best-kept secret.” The most interesting thing about Lola is what Legge achieves with such economy—it feels kind of big at times. The incorporation of archival footage, chopped and changed to fit his parallel timeline, is not seamless, nor is it meant to be, but it’s less cute than the film believes. (That also tracks for the central love story and sometimes trite empowerment arc.) In spite of such snags, Lola retains a convincing narrative propulsion and reaches a satisfying climax. Amongst it all there is at least one moment of sweeping cinema. It’s the kind of thing that gets you a Marvel gig these days—God forbid.
Lola screened at International Film Festival.