Tag Archives: B

THE LOST KING

Producers: Steve Coogan, Christine Langan and Dan Winch   Director: Stephen Frears    Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope  Cast: Sally Hawkins, Steve Coogan, Harry Lloyd, Mark Addy, Amanda Abbington, James Fleet, Lee Ingleby, Shonagh Price, Helen Katamba, Lewis Macleod, Benjamin Scanlan, Adam Robb, Alasdair Hankinson, Ian Dunn and Jade Ogugua   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B

Some of the creative team behind “Philomena”—writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, director Stephen Frears, composer Alexandre Desplat—reassemble to tell another story about a woman wronged, this time not by misguided nuns who snatch away the child born to her out of wedlock but arrogant academics who cheat her of the recognition due for her hard work.  Based on the diptych 2013 book “The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III” by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones, in which the former describes her winding journey to discover the bones of England’s King Richard III (1483-1485), made notorious in Shakespeare’s play, and the latter offers a revisionist portrait of the misunderstood monarch, Frears and company deliver a low-key, engaging crowd-pleaser about historical detective work that’s also a David-and-Goliath story involving sexism and the prejudice against amateurs felt by professionals, as well as a modest reevaluation of Richard’s personality and regal status.

Sally Hawkins plays Langley, introduced as the mother of two rambunctious adolescent sons, Max and Raife (Adam Robb and Richard Scanlan), with whom she shares custody with her amiably caustic ex-husband John (Coogan).  Suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (aka ME), she’s passed over for promotion at work despite her seniority, adding to her feeling of not being properly valued.

Taking in a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” with Max, she’s struck by handsome actor Pete (Harry Lloyd) in the title role, and begins to do research on the monarch who was portrayed as a vile villain, a usurper and the murderer of the two young nephews who were seen as threats to his rule, his evil character embodied in his physical deformity as a hunchback.  Feeling that Richard had been maligned by propagandists for the Tudors, the dynasty that supplanted the Plantagenets after the future Henry VII defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, she makes contact with the Edinburgh branch of the Richard III Society, a group devoted to correcting what they see as the tainted historical record about him.

She also makes contact, in a fashion at least, with Richard himself, in the form of visions, at first mute, that appear to her at inconvenient times (he’s played, of course, by Lloyd in the regalia he wore in the play).  Understandably unnerved at first, Philippa takes them as encouragement to press on with what becomes a personal crusade, to find out what happened to the king’s body and, if possible, to identify the resting place of his remains. She hopes that success will lead to acceptance of the notion that he was no usurper, but a legitimate and in many respects progressive monarch, and—perhaps—not even a hunchback. 

At a lecture in Leicester, a short distance from Bosworth Field, Langley encounters historian John Ashdown-Hill (James Fleet), who advises her about the possible location of Greyfriars, the Franciscan friary in the city where Richard had perhaps been buried, and the sort of locale where its ruins might now be unearthed.  She’s led almost mystically to a parking lot that might be the site, and manages to persuade Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), an archaeologist associated with the University of Leicester, to join in an excavation proposal, even securing the support of the town’s funding committee chair (Amanda Abbington) despite the negative attitude of the University’s deputy dean Richard Taylor (Lee Ingleby), who derides Philippa’s reliance on her feminine “feelings.” The equivalent of a surprisingly successful “go fund me” campaign provides most of the budget, and Langley’s insistence that the team fully uncover some bones found outside the predetermined dig area proves decisive: DNA evidence determines that the skeleton is the king’s, though its curved spine is somewhat of a disappointment to her.

Thus far, unlikely triumph against all obstacles.  But the final half-hour of the film turns to the effort led by Taylor to deny Langley recognition as the prime mover of the project in order to secure credit for the University and an abashed Buckley.  She’s relegated to observer status while a splendid re-internment ceremony unfolds, though her insistence that a royal coat of arms appear on the tomb, proof of Richard’s legitimacy as king, ultimately prevails. 

Inevitably the film simplifies the actual historical events; this is, after all, a drama, not a documentary (of which there have been several).  And there have been strenuous objections to its argument that Langley was robbed by Taylor of the acknowledgement she so richly deserved: see, for example, the article in the Manchester Guardian over criticism leveled at the film’s portrayal of the University’s role at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/aug/28/royal-row-erupts-over-steve-coogan-film-about-richard-iii

But such considerations are really beside the point.  “The Lost King” begins with the usual note that it’s “based on a true story,” but then adds: “her story.”  The film is unabashedly Langley’s version of what happened, which viewers can verify or dismiss to whatever extent they wish, though undoubtedly most will be content to accept what it tells them, which is that she fought against powerful forces and won, though they then robbed her of her victory.  Such is the power of movies.

What’s important is that as such fact-based tales go, this is an enjoyable one.  As usual, Frears’s work is impressive in an unostentatious way, and the contributions of his crew—production designer Andy Harris, costumer Rhona Russell cinematographer Zac Nicholson and editor Pia di Ciaula—are all solid, while the always reliable Desplat contributes a score that’s light while avoiding both cuteness and brashness when it hits triumphant notes.

Hawkins anchors things with a well calibrated performance that shows Langley’s gradual growth in confidence and assertiveness, while Coogan is nicely understated as a partner whose initial cynicism morphs into protective support.  Addy invests Buckley with a note of sheepish apology as he watches Langley misused, and Lloyd quietly embodies the Richard Philippa wants the king to be.  Ingleby doesn’t hesitate to play Taylor as a consummate cad, but doing makes him a hissable villain.

Perhaps the film‘s portrayal of this remarkable episode in recent British royal history isn’t entirely accurate, but it puts Philippa Langley’s version of it across in disarmingly straightforward fashion.   

FULL RIVER RED

Producer: Pang Liwei   Director: Zhang Yimou   Screenplay: Zhang Yimou and Chen Yu   Cast: Shen Teng, Jackson Yee, Zhang Yi, Lei Jiayin, Wang Jiayi, Yue Yunpeng, Xu Jingya, Pan Binlong, Yu Ailei, Guo Jingfei, Ou Hao and Ren Sinuo   Distributor: Niu Vision Media

Grade: B

During his prolific career Zhang Yimou has shown his mastery at choreographing crowds and extravagant swordplay in expansive wuxia epics like “Hero” and “Shadow,” but in the case of “Full River Red,” the running-time might be monumental (two-and-a-half hours) but the physical space is actually quite confined, even claustrophobic, and the battles emphasize words rather than blades.  Given its emphasis on dialogue-driven plot, it’s amazing how exciting Zhang manages to make the film—a testimony to his skill, as well as that of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and editor Li Yongyi—even if it does drag a bit in the final reel and the rah-rah nationalism with which it closes might give some viewers pause.

The title is taken from a poem by Yue Fei, a general serving the Southern Song dynasty who was put to death in 1142, supposedly on trumped-up charges, by Emperor Gaozong and his Chancellor Qin Hui, who sought peace with the northern Jin dynasty the general was determined to defeat.  As a result he has become an icon representing true patriotism and unyielding loyalty to the state, and his poem—which emphasizes protecting the fatherland and preserving it territorially—is renowned among the Chinese populace.  Around this episode, and the sentiment expressed in the poem, Zhang and co-writer Chen Yu have fashioned a fanciful tale of conspiracy and betrayal as labyrinthine as the huge fortress in which the entire plot is set. 

The year is 1146, and frail but cagey Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) is set to meet with a Jin leader to thrash out the terms of a rapprochement between the two realms.  But Hadeng (Wei Xiang), a Jin enjoy, is killed after reaching the fortress, and a secret letter he was carrying has gone missing.  Qin Hui demands that the killer be found and the letter recovered, and Sun Jun (Jackson Yee), the deputy commander of the palace force, is tasked with interrogating guardsmen on duty that night.  One of them is Zhang Da (Shen Teng), an excitable ruffian—and, though older, a nephew of Sun Jun, as well as an escapee from the Jin—who redeems himself by identifying the pouch in which the letter was carried as signifying that the document was of the highest priority. 

In response, Qin Hui and his stoically Machiavellian office manager Lord He Li (Zhang Yi) assign Sun Jun and Zhang Da to ferret out the murderer and find the letter, giving them until daybreak to succeed or suffer the consequences.  The rest of the film alternates between scenes of them frantically rushing down narrow hallways from one location to another as Han Hong’s score revs up the music electronically and adds screeching female vocals to the mix, and expository episodes in which Sun and Zhang discuss the possibilities or find themselves in the company of Qin Hui, He Li, or others who play parts in the increasingly complicated series of schemes, counter-schemes and counter-counter schemes.  These include chubby, inept Lord Wu Yichun (Yue Yunpeng), He Li’s deputy; Zither (Wang Jiayi) a dancing girl who was one of the last people to see Hadeng alive and probably knows more than she’s telling; and Liu Xi (Yu Ailei), a peasant coachman with a cute daughter (Ren Sinuo) who prizes a rare fruit, cherries.

Matters grow murkier and more complex as the night progresses, with corpses piling up, multiple scenes of torture, the revelation of secrets from the past and motives changing from moment to moment.  It would take a far longer review than this one to enumerate the ever-accumulating cascade of twists, turns and reversals.  One aspect of the scenario is that Zhang Da, who initially seems to be a slapstick buffoon (a quality Shen plays to the hilt for comic effect) turns out to be a canny “Columbo” sort who pushes the investigation forward  every time it appears to hit a dead end; and it turns out there’s a good reason for that.  Nonetheless it’s Sun Jun, whom Yee plays with stoic determination, who must finally deal with the ever-duplicitous Qin Hui, who always seems to have one more card to play, including his beautiful, mute attendant Sapphire (Xu Jingya), who proves far more than just a pretty face.

Nonetheless Zhang Yimou gives the last word to Yue Fei, long dead but definitely not forgotten, whose paean to total patriotism the director obviously sees as perfectly suited to the era of Xi Jinping.  Its message of unrestrained nationalism might make Western viewers uneasy at a time when the issue of Taiwan has grown so heated, but the director, who has had some trouble with Chinese critics of his work in the past, knows where the pulse of his country is at present. Though “Full River Red” doesn’t equal the very best of Zhang’s work artistically, it is the most financially successful film he has ever made, as of March 18 the highest-grossing film of the year in China, and the country’s sixth highest-grossing release of all time.  Make of that what you will.