Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Shonagh Price, and Helen Katamba
Synopsis: An amateur historian defies the stodgy academic establishment in her efforts to find King Richard III’s remains, which were lost for over 500 years.
Until a decade ago, the story of King Richard was only known through Shakespeare and his famous last lines, “My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Killed and buried in what essentially was a pauper’s grave, his legacy was left to rot in history in a negative sense, labeled as a usurper by historians and the Royal Family. Then came his rediscovery through the push of an unlikely person, Philippa Langley, although the politics of how much credit she got versus Leicester University continues to this day. Hence, The Lost King is more of a fictionalized version of the events from Philippa’s point of view.
Sally Hawkins plays Philippa, the divorced mother of two boys who works in a dead-end job while struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome. After seeing a local production of King Richard III with her sons, Philippa becomes interested in his story and joins the Richard III Society, which shares with her that his remains are missing. Going on her curiosity and gut feeling, she collects pieces of the puzzle from various sources and zeros in on a parking lot behind Leicester’s Social Services building with an R on it. The story is a case of one person versus the establishment with its red tape and snobbery to boot. Philippa is the heart and soul of the search, allowing the film to depict the politicians, the university figures, and professional excavator Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), as the skeptics and stonewallers.
This is the second collaboration between Steve Coogan, who plays Phillipa’s ex-husband, and also co-wrote and co-produced the film, and director Stephen Frears, who helmed the much more emotional Philomena. Frears has made better films and Coogan is more reliable in comedy than drama. Philomena hit all the marks, but The Lost King does not. Hawkins is great and it is fantastic to see Mark Addy in a solid supporting role, but the writing feels daft and one-dimensional. In fact, the story seems to take too many liberties with the establishment who are resistant to this singular person. Of course, some dramatic license is understandable but it becomes a bit too unbelievable that Philippa did it all by herself. (It should be noted that Philippa felt “sidelined” when the announcement was made, which seems to get that correctly.)
On a side note, it should be noted that Philippa didn’t get interested in the King’s legacy from just watching the play. Instead, she was doing research for – wait for it – a screenplay(!) to write for spec. To history, Richard III was just an evil hunchback who killed his nephews and deserved his violent demise for trying to steal the crown. Why would historians going back to the Tudors lie about such history? Simple, to the victors, go the spoils and write the history books themselves. So, while the film retells the story of history being corrected, its presentation comes off dry, clotting together the loose elements of the entire story a bit clumsily.
This is still a feel-good film where the little woman (or man) comes out of it as the one who got it right the whole time, albeit slightly bittersweet. The caricatures of those who deny and doubt her credentials seem out of line, but being a slanted film towards Philippa’s side of the story, it can be accepted as how she felt or what she perceived as a slight towards some amateur sleuth-wannabe with a kooky theory. There is no tension between the ex-spouses and they are both committed together raising their sons. Buckley is supportive of Philippa after realizing the University’s prerogative of shutting her out. And the closing credits recognize that Philippa’s work was rewarded and that King Richard III’s status is restored in honor rather than shame.
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