THE LOST KING movie poster | ©2023 IFC Films

THE LOST KING movie poster | ©2023 IFC Films

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Steve Coogan, Harry Lloyd, Mark Addy
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on the book THE KING’S GRAVE: THE SEARCH FOR RICHARD III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones
Director: Stephen Frears
Distributor: IFC Films
Release Date: March 24, 2023

While THE LOST KING deals with the search for the physical remains of the English King Richard III, the film’s primary subject is Philippa Langley. Langley has her own Wikipedia page, which notes (among other things) that the University of Leicester is still disputing THE LOST KING’s depiction of events. This all by itself is intriguing.

THE LOST KING is a dramatization of Langley and Michael Jones’s nonfiction book THE KING’S GRAVE: THE SEARCH FOR RICHARD III. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Steve Coogan (who also acts in the film) and Jeff Pope, THE LOST KING acknowledges in its end titles that people and incidents have been invented, but Langley is a real person. Likewise, her desire to get at the truth about Richard III, famously vilified by both the Tudors and William Shakespeare, led her in reality to spearhead an extraordinary quest to find his long-missing body.

When we meet Philippa (Sally Hawkins), she is back at work at a marketing film after a debilitating bout of chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME). She feels both unappreciated and misperceived there. At home, she shares custody of two young sons with her ex-husband John (Coogan), who remains close with Philippa, despite their divorce.

When Philippa attends a production of Shakespeare’s RICHARD III in Edinburgh, Scotland, she is overwhelmed by a feeling of kinship with him. She becomes increasingly obsessed with the notion that Richard has been unfairly demonized over the centuries, that he didn’t set out to be a villain, didn’t murder his nephew, and was in fact a rightful monarch of England.

As Philippa delves into research about Richard as a historical figure, she joins the Richard III Society, whose members call themselves Ricardians. The Ricardians feel that Richard has been wrongly condemned as a murderer and as a usurper, but they’re viewed as a “fan club” by historians.

Probably the real Langley didn’t hallucinate seeing and speaking with Richard III (Harry Lloyd, who also plays the actor portraying Richard in the stage production Philippa sees). In the film, this is a major plot point. Indeed, it’s not stretching things too far to say that the movie’s Philippa is driven not only by empathy with her fellow underestimated soul, but by romantic love for Richard.

As Philippa sees connections no one else has noticed, she begins to suspect that she may have discovered where Richard’s body is interred. There’s then the matter of persuading an archaeologist to commence a dig, to say nothing of funding the project.

Even if the film’s existence and the Langley/Jones book weren’t huge clues, it’s not too hard to guess whether or not Philippa is right. However, that’s not the end of her fight.

Hawkins gives us insight into Philippa’s sorrow, exhaustion, confusion, and determination. It’s a fully-felt performance. Lloyd is suitably regal, wistful, and enigmatic as Philippa’s vision of Richard. Coogan brings some levity as the skeptical but caring John, and Mark Addy captures the complexities of the opportunistic but not evil archeologist who winds up supervising the excavation. All of the actors playing the Edinburgh Ricardians are delightful.

The filmmakers bring a sense of genuine mystery as well as character study to THE LOST KING, a quality too often lacking in this type of how-this-thing-happened storytelling. By making the stakes so personal for Philippa, they also give it a dimension that transcends whether or not we care about the finding of the skeleton. THE LOST KING successfully illustrates someone struggling to validate their own sense of identity through achievement, and that’s something most viewers can recognize from life.

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