History is written by the winners, and sometimes fact can be stranger than fiction. Within these cliches lies the cozy comfort of The Lost King. Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan have teamed up to tell the true-ish story of how an amateur historian unearthed the long-lost remains of King Richard III in an ordinary parking lot. Infused with warmth and buoyed by the lead performance of Sally Hawkins, never has the quest for a missing corpse been so whimsical. (Well, not since Stephen King’s best film anyway.)
On its surface, the story of Philippa Langley seems an easy sell: A harried mother of two is the underdog in winning hearts and minds to a campaign to not only reclaim a royal relic but also to rewrite the history of one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. In the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philippa is most vivid when passionately defending Richard III against the falsehoods painted by the classic play that bears his name or the centuries of “Tudor propaganda” that painted him as a vile, child-murdering, hunchbacked usurper.
“I don’t believe someone would be so wicked just because of a disability,” she argues to an apathetic peer. And Philippa would have some insight into that, as a person with disabilities herself.
The Lost King brings Richard III to the screen in a clever way.
Credit: IFC Films
In real life(Opens in a new tab) and in the movie, Philippa has myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome(Opens in a new tab), which can cause extreme exhaustion — especially in times of stress. In the film, stress is all around her. At work, her path to promotion is blocked by an ageist boss. At home, her estranged husband (Coogan) is happy to lecture her over her responsibilities, while her adolescent sons gripe about dinner, video games, and homework. However, seeing a dashing actor (Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd) perform in William Shakespeare’s Richard III gives Philippa an unexpected ally. Coogan and Pope’s screenplay not only parallels Philippa’s search for the real Richard (and his remains) with her search to redefine herself, but also brings her connection to the maligned royal to life by having him appear as a kind of imaginary friend.
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Richard III, not hunched over he was written by Shakespeare(Opens in a new tab) but standing tall as Philippa imagines him to be, waits for her on park benches, teases her on a particular bridge, and even offers gentle advice. In quiet ways, he is the only one in her life who makes her feel enough. This bond — the film suggests — is what drives Philippa to take on tiring travel, academic debates, scads of research, and tedious bureaucratic red tape. All this for the magical feeling she gets when she wanders into a parking lot (aka car park), where a painted R might be intended to communicate “reserved” but to her points to only one possibility: Richard III lies here. With the fluttering score, it feels like fate has brought them here.
The Lost King loses focus in its balance between truth and fiction.
Credit: IFC films
The real Langley has spoken about this moment,(Opens in a new tab) and it’s easy to imagine this in particular pitched as a key scene in a movie. However, there’s a lot of work beyond this winsome moment of instinct, and The Lost King stumbles as it tracks her progress through Zoom calls, paperwork, board meetings, and battling with the credit-snatchers of the world.
In the film’s third act, Philippa’s motivations are muddied as her seeming victory is dampened by others claiming the credit. Is this about restoring Richard to his proper place in history or making her own mark on it? The film seems to think the latter is an uncivilized pursuit, playing down Langley’s real-life motivation in her initial research, which was to write a screenplay. (Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want to invite criticism for choosing to tell this story without Langley as a credited scribe?)
On one hand, Frears’s film sings the praises of this woman who yearns to be seen as more than a hard worker, a wife, and a mother. The first act swiftly establishes how taxing her obligations are, and how her disability adds to her stress. Coogan gamely plays the clown as Philippa’s husband realizes how he’s taken her contributions and desires for granted. Her sons, who scenes before were eye-rolling over her passion project, become quick to cheer for her success. However, the fellow Ricardians she reaches out to are repeatedly painted as quarrelous misfits and goofy fans. It’s not until the final act that Frears dares to suggest Philippa’s goals may not have been entirely altruistic, as if there’s something unseemly about wanting to make a name for herself.
As she pushes back against a needle-nosed university representative for her literal place at the table, The Lost King bristles with the unfairness of it all with a swell of moody music. Yet it is quick to rush to a hasty happy ending that suggests there’s something more important than making one’s mark accurately in history. This is a strange suggestion for the movie to make after Philippa’s whole impetus was to judiciously rewrite the history of her hero, giving him credit where he was due.
Will The Lost King be in the 2023 Oscar race?
Coogan, Pope, and Frears were the creative team behind the four-time Academy Award-nominated Philomena, a winsome historical drama that also co-starred Coogan. It’s easy to imagine they saw Langley’s story as their next shot at Oscar gold. Perhaps once more the Academy will be won over by the screenplay, which does hold some smartly honed reality alongside movie-friendly flights of imagination. However, it’s hard to imagine — even this early in the season — that The Lost King will awe enough to earn a Best Picture nod.
Nominated for best directing twice before, for The Grifters and The Queen, Frears will be on the Academy’s radar. Perhaps their nominating committee might be charmed by its warmth, imagination, and flirtation with rebellion. But The Lost King isn’t electric or stunning like Frears’s best work. Similarly, Hawkins, who was nominated for her work in Blue Jasmine and The Shape of Water, gives a performance that is earnest and strong. Yet it’s nowhere near as thrilling or challenging as her previously heralded works.
In the end, The Lost King struck me as a pleasant movie, lifted by a rightfully celebrated leading lady and enough whimsy to overcome the tediousness of its weaker turns and too-tidy conclusion. It’s the kind of movie that would make a lovely watch on a rainy Sunday, but far from the kind that’ll make waves, much less change history.
The Lost King was reviewed out of its World Premiere at the 2022 International Toronto Film Festival.
UPDATE: Mar. 24, 2023, 1:16 p.m. EDT This review has been republished to toast its US theatrical release on March 24.