In 2012, an inconspicuous Leicester carpark made international headlines when the skeleton of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, was found beneath it. 10 years later , its film counterpart The Lost King tells the story of amateur historian, Phillipa Langley, who, struggling with family life, work, and illness, joins the Richard III Society after seeing Shakespeare’s play about the evil king. She quickly becomes engrossed in a quest to find the king’s lost remains, and two parallel stories unfold: one about the discovery of the remains, and one about Langley’s discovery of her own self-worth.
The film somehow makes this remarkable event feel slightly unremarkable, lost among many other wholesome British comfort films. All the ingredients are there: well-loved English actors, a witty screenplay to make its middle-aged audience titter, a downtrodden underdog for us to root for.
Sally Hawkins, who plays Langley, is the crown jewel in the whole thing. When watching interviews with the real-life Langley, it’s clear to see that Hawkins’ blend of vulnerability and determination is perfect for the role. Steve Coogan also appears as Langley’s ex-husband, chipping in with a good few one-liners. The story itself is interesting enough to carry the film, and creates a pleasant watch to pass an hour or two.
That being said, some aspects of the film feel contrived and unsatisfying. Throughout, Langley converses with spectral visions of King Richard, and while sights of the King on a park bench, or on a train to Leicester, create quirky shots and funny moments, the connection between Richard and Langley is a little too tenuous to pay off. The film is determined to shrug off the shadow of Shakespeare’s villain (think child-murdering, hunchbacked usurper), but in doing so, it ironically fabricates its own antagonist. The villain is no longer Richard III but…Leicester University?
What should have been a moment of cathartic conclusion falls flat, as Langley’s hard work is overshadowed by academics and university representatives taking credit for the discovery. While the silencing of women and amateurs in academic spheres is valid, it could have been handled with a little more nuance. The bold creation of villains from real-life people (with representatives from the university now threatening legal action) does exactly what Shakespeare did to Richard III, making the film’s entire thesis redundant in the name of storytelling.
Frears and Coogan undoubtedly know how to churn out a charming little crowd-pleaser, but a better example of their collaboration can be found in 2013’s Philomena. While both films are true stories with popular British actors, Philomena has the emotional height and powerful conclusion that The Lost King lacks. Still, it’s the kind of film that’s impossible to hate, and worth a watch if you want to hear Steve Coogan say “Boys, your mother’s just found Richard III!”
The Lost King is in cinemas now.