The Lost King – movie review

In 2012 amateur historian Phillipa Langley discovered the final resting place of famed fifteenth century monarch King Richard III under a carpark in the centre of Leicester. Most of what contemporary audiences know of Richard, the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, is based on the play written by Shakespeare some 100 years after the king was killed during the battle of Bosworth Field. Shakespeare depicted the king as a usurper and a bloody tyrant, and most notably as a hunchback with a “twisted body and a twisted personality.”

A mother of two teenage boys who prefer to spend their time playing computer games, Phillipa herself suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and was trapped in a boring marketing job where she felt she was not appreciated. Phillipa believed that the typical picture of Richard as presented by Shakespeare was not accurate and felt that he had largely been vilified by the Tudors. She joins the local branch of the Richard III Society and finds sympathy for her viewpoint. She was determined to restore his rightful place in history as a legitimate king and not the traitorous usurper of popular lore.

There were conflicting reports regarding the disposal of Richard’s body after he was slain on the battlefield 500 years earlier, but her detailed research led her to believe that Richard’s final resting place was beneath a car park that was once part of a cathedral. Her estranged husband John was initially skeptical of her efforts and thought her obsession with Richard was unhealthy. She approached Leicester University’s history department for support but found herself battling the sexism and misogyny and stuffy bureaucracy. When the university funding for the project dried up Phillipa and the Society set up a crowd funding campaign, and money poured in from around the world allowing her to dig up the car park.

The Lost King has been based on the 2013 book The King’s Grave: The Search For Richard III, which written by Langley detailing her efforts to locate Richard’s body and her battles with the stuffy and sexism world of academia. The script and the film was something of a passion project for Steve Coogan (The Trip) who became fascinated with the story after seeing a documentary on the search for Richard’s burial site. He has written the script in collaboration with Jeff Pope (with whom he previously wrote Philomena) and has again brought on board veteran director Stephen Frears (who also worked on Philomema).

The film deals with the inherent misogyny and sexism of the world of academia as Phillipa sought to be taken seriously and have her efforts recognised. The film subtly draws a parallel between Phillipa and her struggles to be taken seriously and the unfairly maligned king. The script is respectful of Phillipa’s story, but it is also a little playful as Coogan and Pope have taken some artistic liberties and worked into the story the ghostly presence of Richard (played by Harry Lloyd, from The Theory of Everything), who encourages her in her efforts and points her in the right direction whenever she begins to doubt herself.

Frears draws strong performances from his cast. Sally Hawkins (Oscar-nominated for The Shape of Water) delivers a strong and convincing performance here and she inhabits the character of the tenacious Phillipa, investing her with a steely quality and resolve, but she also taps into her vulnerability and occasional doubts and uncertainty. Coogan himself plays her husband John and brings his usual congenial and affable presence to the role. Lloyd has a charming presence as Richard. Mark Addy (The Full Monty) plays it straight as Richard Buckley, the university archaeologist and historian who becomes involved in Phillipa’s quest and he (somewhat unfairly) receives the accolades for the historic discovery while Phillipa’s role is downplayed by the stuffy academics, including the smarmy and arrogant bureaucrat Richard Taylor (Lee Ingleby, from the TV series Inspector George Gently).

The film has been nicely shot by Zac Nicholson (The Death of Stalin) who captures stunning vistas of Leicester, making the cityscapes almost another character. The opening credit sequence and Alexandre Desplat’s score play out like the opening sequence of a suspenseful Hitchcock thriller, which immediately sets up some expectations for the audience.

The search for Richard III is a fascinating story and Frears does it justice with this pleasant and entertaining and old-fashioned British drama that will please audiences.

Greg King

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