Film Review: “The Lost King” — Richard the III, Rebranded
By Peg Aloi
The Lost King contains perhaps too many calculated moments of sentimental synchronicity. Still, it manages to soar, thanks to the excellent performance of its lead, Sally Hawkins.
The Lost King, directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Screening at the Plimoth Cinema, Plymouth, MA
Most folks know about Richard the III: the usurper who, in Shakespeare’s version, lost the Battle of Bosworth Field for want of a horse. Hunchbacked and ugly, he somehow managed to seduce Lady Anne despite his repulsive appearance and murdered his own nephews to prevent their ascension to the throne. Throughout history he has generally been regarded as an evil, but undeniably charismatic, pretender to the English monarchy. This film is based on a true story: a woman who became obsessed with helping to improve Richard the III’s tarnished image: he was, in fact, a legitimate king, a decent human being, the last Plantagenet to occupy the English throne. In order to clear Richard’s name, she has to partner with archaeologists to have his bones disinterred from beneath a social services building in Leicester, England, not far from Bosworth Field, where, legend has it, Richard the III’s remains had been buried after he died in battle.
Philippa Langley co-wrote a book with historian Michael Jones called The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard the III. Published in 2013, the chronicle of her experience as an amateur historian became the inspiration for this film (“based on a true story … her story” read the opening credits), whose creative team includes iconic English director Stephen Frears, screenwriters Steve Coogan (The Trip to Spain) and Jeff Pope, and composer Alexandre Desplat. The same group worked together on 2013’s Philomena. Based on journalist Michael Sixsmith’s book, that film starred the dependably inspirational Judi Dench as an Irish woman who was being interviewed about her traumatic experiences living in an abusive convent as a young girl. Like that film, The Lost King contains perhaps too many calculated moments of sentimental synchronicity. Still, it also manages to soar, thanks to the excellent performance of its lead actress, in this case, Sally Hawkins.
We first meet Philippa, a somewhat harried mother of two teenage boys, after she has separated from her husband John (Coogan). She is struggling to balance household duties with her rather bland but demanding administrative job. An additional obstacle is that she is suffering from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, formerly known as chronic fatigue syndrome). When Philippa is passed over for a workplace promotion that should have been hers because of her seniority, she decides to take time off without telling John or her sons Max and Raife (Adam Robb and Richard Scanlan). She attends a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard the III with her son and is tremendously moved by the lead actor’s performance as the king. She begins researching Richard’s reign, buying every book on the topic at her local bookshop. She also contacts the Edinburgh branch of the Richard III Society, an eclectic group dedicated to upholding the truth of Richard’s kingship. They reject the sensationalized and, they claim, inaccurate, version popularly accepted as truth. Another thing energizing her curiosity: Philippa starts having odd visions of the actor who played Richard (Harry Lloyd). Her research leads her to formulate a theory about Richard that could be proven through evidence — if his remains could be found. Meanwhile, John and the boys learn that she has stopped working. What had been an amiable separation becomes somewhat tense as Philippa’s obsession with Richard III interferes with her family’s routine.
After attending a lecture about Richard in Leicester, Philippa meets a historian who tells her that Greyfriars, the Franciscan chapel where Richard might have been buried, is nearby. Following a sudden urge, she walks until she comes to a parking lot and is suddenly overcome with a strange feeling. When she looks down and sees a large letter “R” in a circle, she is visibly shaken and moved. At this point the film suggests that Philippa might be delusional because of stress generated by her recent work-related trauma and the ongoing difficulty of living with a debilitating illness. But it’s also clear she’s resilient and resourceful, determined to make the most of her challenging circumstances. She contacts an archeologist at the University of Leicester named Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), who is impressed by her work and agrees to help arrange an excavation if she can secure the financing. The town funding official (Amanda Abbington) is ecstatically supportive, while the University’s deputy dean (also named Richard, played by Lee Ingleby) is condescending. He openly mocks Phillippa’s “strong feelings.” The list of characters grows to include archeologists and workers, journalists and onlookers. In the process, the film takes on a bustling energy that becomes truly suspenseful. All the while, there’s the ghost of Richard, made flesh by the handsome young actor, mostly silent, sometimes speaking, a softly beguiling presence who encourages Philippa’s efforts, desiring to be seen for who he is.
After Philippa raises the monies needed for the excavation through an online crowdfunding effort, the university decides to capitalize on the media attention. Philippa is relegated to the sidelines. Viewers of the Netflix film The Dig (boasting an excellent screenplay by Moira Buffini, this feature was also based on a true story) will note a similar theme: the academic snobbery of archeology is dismissive of the work of passionate amateurs, or women. Philippa is understandably depressed that her research and discoveries are being attributed to others. But her mission to raise awareness about Richard III’s misunderstood reign is ultimately successful and her efforts are duly recognized. Hawkins, who’s made a career playing complex, often-inscrutable women, was made for this unassuming role. The Lost King is an intriguing combination. On the one hand, it is a feel-good drama about a woman who rises above her unsatisfying life by finding a cause. On the other, it is a kind of historical whodunit whose revelations revise our understanding of a historical figure we thought was a villain, made memorable by Shakespeare. Frears ties these threads together adroitly, helped by the fine cast and an excellent production and design team.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.