A found footage film set in the early 1940s, consisting of snippets of home cine, recorded-off-air primitive TV (there’s an explanation for this), newsreel, documents, etc. – prefaced by a message from Mars, who’s actually a woman called Martha (Stefanie Martini), to her sister Tom (Emma Appleton), whose meaning only becomes clear as the complicated story unfolds. Orphaned early in life and left to their own devices in a rambling old house, the sisters tinker with LOLA, a machine that can pull in radio and television signals from the future. At first, they use this to become acquainted with the pop music of decades hence – a moment that really clicked with my pedantic self comes when Mars uses ‘cool’ as an adjective in 1940, setting off that meter of mine which twinges painfully when someone says ‘serial killer’ in a film set in the 1950s (See How They Run) or ‘was radicalised at university’ in a film set during World War II (The Imitation Game) … only for the character to explain ‘cool as in groovy’ and admit she’s using an expression that doesn’t yet mean what she intends it to.
Even more astonishing is a sequence when she sings one of her favourite songs, the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me Going’, in a wartime nightclub, with the musicians finding a 1940s way of performing that makes it an era-defining hit before its time. This also presumably wrecks Ray Davies’ life before he’s picked up a guitar – as is chillingly hinted at when an attempt to tune in to David Bowie in 1973 reveals he’s been displaced in the timestream by ‘Reginald Fucking Watson’ (Shaun Boylan), whose sinister dystopian glam rock is horribly convincing (Watson’s number one hit ‘Marching Together’ isn’t all that different from ‘Do You Wanna Be in My Gang?’).
Of course, it’s wartime when LOLA is invented – and Mars dips a toe into disturbing the future by broadcasting anonymously as ‘the Angel of Portobello’, warning Londoners where the bombs will fall tonight. This brings the sisters to the attention of the government, represented by a couple of uniformed spooks, Sebastian (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan), who persuade the women to use the ‘early warning system’ for far more military advantage … which brings about a cascading series of triumphs and disasters on the road to Reginald Fucking Watson. Director Andrew Legge, who co-wrote with Angeli Macfarlane, buries a gothic tale of a twisted family in an old dark house and the efforts of the light and dark sisters inside an alternate history riot of telling little details and It Happened Here-style battles which didn’t happen collaged from tweaked authentic newsreel and new footage.
The relationship between Mars and Sebastian is a bit rote, overshadowed by everything else going on even though it turns out to be important to the plot – but the real sparks are between the sisters, with the blonde, sunny, optimistic Mars trying to get through to dark, quiet, androgynous, conflicted genius Tom. Of course, Mars is supposed to be the editor of the film we see, so she might be shaping the material – or, more likely, throwing it all together in desperation since it was her impulses on top of the scientific breakthrough that led to all the history-breaking. This is an ingenious, exhilarating film: it demands rewatches, revels in time-twisting inventiveness and has a lot to say about the actual present day as it contemplates how good intentions might muck up the past.