Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) is adrift. Recently denied a big assignment at work—she’s good at what she’s already doing, her boss says— and suffering from ME, a chronic fatigue illness that especially flares up in times of stress, she’s in need of something to rejuvenate her. When she takes her two sons to see a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” for a school assignment, she’s struck by the titular character, finding resonance in how he was maligned in life, his memory further distorted after his death. Philippa is so captivated, in fact, that she starts seeing visions of Richard (Harry Lloyd) and finds herself able to speak to the specter as though he was really there. Her deep digs into his life leads her to the Richard III Society, a group of enthusiasts who seek to rehabilitate the king’s image, and sets her off on a quest to locate his long lost remains, to the derision of historians.
Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (who previously collaborated on the acclaimed 2013 film “Philomena”), “The Lost King” tells the true story of Langley, whose investigations led to the remains of Richard III being unearthed beneath a car park in Leicester. “The Lost King” is capably if conventionally crafted, its more typical crowd-pleaser elements elevated by the inclusion of the Richard III apparition, which lends a light surreal touch to the proceedings, Alexandre Desplat’s thrilling score that lends a little more excitement to a slowly plotted quest whose missions largely involve bureaucratic meetings and staring at maps, and Pia Di Ciaula’s neat editing.
Where it really finds its strength is in the way it explores the way popular media can perpetuate falsehoods about historical fact (largely through Shakespeare’s play, in this case, when another parent expresses to Philippa his view that Richard was a villain) and parallels the trajectory of Richard’s story with Philippa’s. After he ascended England’s throne in the wake of Richard’s death, Henry Tudor, soon to become King Henry VII, spread misinformation about Richard to further legitimize his claim to the throne. Similarly, Philippa had her accomplishment taken from her by the stuffed shirts at Leicester University (most of whom are, coincidentally, named Richard, a fact that the film has some fun with), who expressed derision over her quest from the start and only pitched in a little funding after it started to look like she really might be on to something. This final segment of the film wraps up rather quickly and with more of a whimper than a roar, although it is clear that we leave Philippa in a more fulfilled place than where she started. Hawkins never misses, and she imbues Philippa with a lot of pluck and determination that continues to simmer even when her insecurities rise to the surface. Coogan, who plays Philippa’s ex-husband with whom she maintains a close amicable relationship as they co-parent their boys, provides both solid comic support and a voice of reason, as he is confused and concerned but also supportive of Philippa’s new interest. Their scenes, with their warm rapport, are arguably the most fun to watch in the whole movie.
If the primary goal of “The Lost King” is to place credit where credit is due, hopefully that will carry over to the real world. If you look up Richard III’s Wikipedia page right now, it lists Leicester University as the group that discovered the king’s remains; Philippa’s name is nowhere to be found. The controversy may not end there though; reportedly, based on the film’s trailer alone, some archeologists involved in the dig content that it places too much of the credit on Philippa for arranging the project’s finances, but not those involved in a more hands-on way. Regardless, as inspiring as Philippa’s journey is on paper, when put through the predictable paces on screen, it’s never more than pleasant and mildly compelling.
Runtime: 108 minutes.