If you assumed a film about an amateur historian finding the remains of long-lost British king Richard III would be boring and esoteric, you’d be wrong. Stephen Frears’ latest based-on-a-true story onscreen endeavor is at the same time compelling and endearing, perhaps because at its core it’s a story about the common man triumphing over naysayers.
THE LOST KING ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, who also teamed up for Frears’ 2013 effort Philomena, The Lost King is a dramatized version of events that actually took place. In 2012, Philippa Langley a housewife-turned-researcher led a search to uncover Richard III’s bones, which she eventually discovered in a parking lot in Leicester. Although the University of Leicester were involved in the dig and in identifying the bones, it was Langley who initiated the search, dubbed it the “Looking for Richard” project, and helped to crowdfund the excavation along with the Richard III Society. For years, Langley’s efforts have been overshadowed by the more powerful academics—something this film clearly aims to set right.
When we meet Philippa (a delightful Sally Hawkins), she’s living in Edinburgh, raising her two sons with the help of her ex-husband John (Coogan). Philippa suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and loses a promotion at work, despite trying to convince her boss that her condition doesn’t affect her career. One evening, at a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Philippa finds herself becoming obsessed with the king. She relates to his marginalization as a supposed hunchback and usurper, and begins to research his life, going so far as to join the local Richard III Society. The more she learns, the more intrigued she becomes and Richard (Harry Lloyd) begins to appear to her in visions.
In reality, Langley’s research spanned years. In the film, however, the screenwriters have condensed things into a much snappier version of events. Philippa uncovers evidence that Richard may have been buried in a now-demolished church, not unceremoniously thrown into the river, with the help of historian John Ashdown-Hill (James Fleet). Soon, she narrows her search to a parking lot, where an eerie feeling overtakes her. He’s there and she knows it.
It’s these moments, as well as Philippa’s conversations with the imagined Richard, that reveal why Langley’s story is so extraordinary. She wasn’t an academic or a professor, nor did she have any particular credentials when she undertook this project. She went on both knowledge and instinct, which many suggested made her “too emotional.” But it was because of, not in spite of, that emotion that Langley eventually found something no historian had been able to find. She was an underdog—and who doesn’t love the story of an underdog.
Thanks to the amended timeline, Frears keeps the story moving along. He doesn’t linger over the mundane-but-necessary scenes, like meetings with Leicester’s government. Instead, he lets Philippa and her struggle carry the story. Her conversations with Richard, standing in for her internal monologue, are emotionally satisfying and often funny. And just when you think Philippa’s ex-husband and sons have tired of her obsession, which has taken her away from her job, they step in to save the day. It’s all very heart-warming, which is typical of Frears’ films.
When The Lost King came out in the U.K. last year, some academics and establishment media questioned the truth of the screenplay. Didn’t University of Leicester deserve the credit, not some housewife from Edinburgh? The university went so far as to release a statement, claiming it had never sidelined Langley. But the viewer will recognize a classic David vs. Goliath tale at the heart of The Lost King, which is what makes it such a good story. To an American audience, which always roots for the everyday hero, Philippa’s ultimate triumph is cathartic and encouraging. We too could find previously-undiscovered artifacts in an old parking lot if we only trusted our instincts as much as she did.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.