As the world mourns the loss of England’s longest-serving monarch, Elizabeth II, director Stephen Frears and screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope bring audiences the incredible story of the search for another. The reliably excellent Sally Hawkins gives a committed and passionate performance as the woman at the heart of the historic discovery, but The Lost King is a cinematic treasure hunt that never quite becomes the jewel in the crown it aims to be.
Thanks to Shakespeare’s oft-performed portrait of the man, Richard III has become one of history’s most notorious villains. Marked as a usurper of the English throne by the Tudor dynasty that emerged victorious from the Wars of the Roses, the Bard’s version of Richard—hunchbacked and murderous—has long been read as fact as opposed to fiction. Though known to have met a grisly end at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the final resting place of this last Plantagenet king has been shrouded in mystery for over 500 years. Some said his body was ignominiously thrown into the River Soar, others that it was buried in a churchyard in Leicester. Many have tried to locate his remains over the centuries that followed his demise but until 2012, no one had yet succeeded.
Enter Philippa Langley (Hawkins). Bored at work after being unfairly passed over for promotion due to chronic illness, Langley gets inspired to finally locate the long-dead king after taking in a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy with one of her sons. Her flaring Myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as M.E. or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) has made her sensitive to those, like Richard, who have been judged unfairly based on appearance and other things out of a person’s control. Langley channels her building frustration with her personal situation into her new single-minded obsession and seeks out all she can on Richard—joining the Richard III Society, befriending experts, and ably challenging anyone who derides her quest for truth.
Hawkins so perfectly encapsulates Philippa’s growing self-confidence amid a world of frustration that you can’t help but wish the film delved a bit deeper into her character and her catharsis. Much of what we do learn about her comes through her interactions with others and less through actual personal introspection or reflection. What’s truly driving her here? Why Richard? In the hands of a lesser actress, the role could be quite one-dimensional but Hawkins fills in the emotional gaps largely without saying a word. In searching for Richard, Philippa’s not just fighting not just for recognition for the maligned monarch but for herself and you can’t help but cheer her on.
As Langley’s search continues, professors, friends, and family, including her ex-husband (played by Steve Coogan), scoff at her goal—pointing out that if academics through the years had failed, how would an amateur like her fare any better. But she has one supporter firmly in her camp: Richard himself. Crowned and in full stately robes, he hovers in and out of her life to both encourage and silently guide her. Whether he’s a hallucination or something more is left up to the viewer, a cinematic choice that largely pays off because of the calm chemistry between Hawkins and Harry Lloyd Jr. as the young king. The device gives life to the long-dead king and adds a pinch of necessary humanity to a search that is at times seems wholly bureaucratic and logistical in nature. It’s important for Langley not just to find Richard but, after finding him, to then ensure he gets the more balanced recognition he deserves.
The film’s supporting cast are all excellent, particularly Mark Addy, James Fleet and Amanda Abbington, but this is Hawkins’ film from start to finish. Without her, the film would come off as a paint-by-numbers journey of self-discovery and that feels largely down to the script and direction. Frears, Coogan, and Pope clearly have an interest in this journey of a woman held back by doubters, but you can’t help but wonder what the film could’ve achieved in the hands of those who have fought similar battles of recognition and acceptance. What layers and subtleties they could’ve explored. Frears directs capably enough, but seems to retain an unnecessary emotional distance as the film gallops to its conclusion. Coogan and Pope’s script lands where one would expect, siding with Philipa against the odds, but there’s a depth of feeling missing here too. There is certainly frustration for Langley and joy at her discoveries, thanks to Hawkins’ empathetic portrayal, but the wonder and excitement that such an amazing journey should instill in audiences is ultimately missing.
Still, history buffs and fans of the underdog have plenty to enjoy here, not least of which is the truly bonkers concept of find a King buried beneath a car park. Now that’s just crazy enough to sound like something concocted by a particularly imaginative screenwriter. And perhaps that’s The Lost King‘s problem. Not even the team behind 2014’s excellent Philomena can add anything that the original story didn’t already have. It could be that this is a story better served by documentarians that could let the history speak for itself.
The Lost King screened as part of TIFF 2022, which ran from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.