The Lost King may look like geriatric matinee fare, but Sally Hawkins makes the film her own with another terrific, heartfelt performance. Hawkins is Philippa Langley, the amateur historian who led the exhumation of Richard III in a Leicester city car park. Some have questioned whether this event can sustain a feature film, but let’s not forget how remarkable this story is. Through diligence and almost obsessive focus, an enthusiast from the Edinburgh branch of the Richard III Society managed to rewrite history, correcting falsehoods that had lasted for over five hundred years.
Even if this still sounds dry to you, don’t discount the character work. I know very little of the real Philippa Langley, but the woman we are introduced to in The Lost King is deeply unhappy. Her life is one beset by stress and alienation. She’s separated from her partner John (Steve Coogan) and her two sons live on their Xbox, occasionally noticing their mother’s odd behaviour. Philippa spends lonely days in bed, leaden with ME and harried by the prospect of work, which is a sales job with a load of banal office types.
Hawkins imbues Langley with a lot of pathos. She’s great at vulnerability. Yet Langley isn’t just a strip of blotting paper, wallowing in negativity. She’s an appreciator of the arts, and when she watches a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Langley discovers a new lease of life. You may know the pleasure of falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, jumping from one subject to the next. It’s a dilettante’s dream. Well, Langley fell down a rabbit hole and then some, becoming utterly possessed by Richard III and the 15th century. She escapes her pain by consuming all the literature she can find, quickly developing a formidable knowledge of Richard, whom she believes has been defamed by “Tudor propaganda.”
All of this got my blood up. I positively hated Richard Taylor, a university bureaucrat played with intolerable smugness by Lee Ingleby (that’s a compliment). Yet I knew I was being manipulated. I’d expected it, anyway. Stephen Frears’ film was obviously going to amplify the tension between a headstrong amateur historian and her professional gatekeepers. This isn’t necessarily unwarranted. After all, there’s plenty of arrogance in the historical establishment. Just look how some of its gatekeepers reacted at the time. “Gt fun & a mystery solved,” historian Mary Beard tweeted, “But does it have any HISTORICAL significance?” She was joined by Professor Neville Morley, who wrote, “”Whoop-de-doo … Why is it that a skeleton is interesting only if it’s that of a famous person?” To professional historians, nothing raises a derisive eyebrow more than so-called “popular history”.
However, while the clashes of Langley’s mission may ring true – and make for a good yarn – The Lost King appears to favour drama over accuracy. Speaking with the Guardian, Professor Turi King said that the university team “bent over backwards” to keep Langley involved. Richard Taylor, my personal bête noire of the piece, described the film as “reckless,” adding that, “There’s dialogue in there that not only didn’t happen that way, but didn’t happen at all… We always included her, and gave out her number to the press.”
Langley does not agree. She maintains that she was “diminished, sidelined and marginalised” owing to her amateur status. Maybe she was, who knows? Frears and co-writer Steve Coogan have chosen to tell Langley’s account because it simply makes for a better story. What results is a likely skewed and manipulative comedy drama, one that risks being subsumed by whimsical kookiness. It largely avoids this, though, with a brilliant turn from Hawkins, a lovely eye for camerawork, and a fundamentally unique story.