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
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.