Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 15th, 2022
The Lost King (Stephen Frears, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
How much do I love seeing Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) on screen? In role after role, she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to express a range of emotions and has perfected the art of projecting strength through vulnerability. In Stephen Frears’ new film, written, as was his 2013 Philomena, by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, she is marvelously at it again, playing the real-life Philippa Langley, the woman responsible for discovering the lost resting place of England’s King Richard III. Even those with little interest in British history (or Shakespeare) will find this tale of perseverance against nearly insurmountable odds, and official indifference, truly inspiring.
It’s also infuriating, given the many ways Philippa is constantly belittled by the establishment. Suffering at the time from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS), Philippa has enough trouble motivating to do much of anything, yet latches on to the idea that she knows where Richard III is buried and brings it to a rash of specialists. All refuse to bite until one desperate archaeologist at the University of Leicester agrees to help, as long as she comes up with funding. And then, when the king’s remains are finally discovered, the university decides to take all the credit. Frailty, thy name is entitled masculinity.
The movie has plenty of pep to it, beyond its exposé of Philippa’s nauseating treatment, in part thanks to Coogan (The Trip to Greece), who plays John, the protagonist’s somewhat estranged husband, and also to the delightful extended cast of characters. Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) has an alternatingly comic and dramatic touch, as the requires. The score, by Alexandre Desplat (Little Women), is a little less spot on in its choices, if still enjoyable. Sections of it seem to channel the great Bernard Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest, for whatever reason. That works for the opening, setting a tone of mystery, but in other spots it’s a bit much.
And what of the central riddle, itself? Who was Richard III that his missing bones should mean so much? He was the last Plantagenet king of England, defeated in the concluding battle of the Wars of the Roses and immortalized in the play that bears his name as a hunchback who murdered his nephews to ascend to the throne. Philippa, suffering from her own disability—and one that very few accept as real—takes exception to the inference that Richard was evil because his spine was crooked, that physical deformity equals moral corruption. It’s after watching a performance of Shakespeare’s work that she becomes obsessed with this historical injustice and launches herself on a mission to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation. Find Richard—whose body many historians believe was thrown away without ceremony—and begin to correct the record.
This obsession leads to visions, Richard III (Harry Lloyd, As I Am) following her everywhere and eventually speaking with her. It’s a cute gimmick, but it undercuts the real research that the actual Philippa must have done to solve the case. A voracious reader, she figures out that Richard was probably buried in Grey Friars Church and then, from clues and maps old and new, where that church could be today. Finally, on a hunch, she decides that Grey Friars’ modern-day location is in a parking lot in Leicester. Here, that “hunch” is more the result of the phantom Richard leading her there. So much for intellect and research.
Nevertheless, The Lost King is a mostly fun ride, following the adventures and misadventures of a woman persevering despite the constant disrespect she encounters. And the central message, that we all deserve second chances and to be seen for who we are, is a good one. If the whimsical mise-en-scène and editorializing of the soundtrack sometimes detract from what works, there’s always Hawkins to lead us forwards. She can do no wrong.