The Lost King: Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Adapted from the book: The Discovery of Richard III’s Lost Burial Place and the Clues it Holds by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones.
Directed by Stephen Frears. Produced by BBC Films, Baby Cow Productions and Ingenious Production s.. Palace Electric Cinema. Opens December 26 2022.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Every now and again a film can come along that has the power to alter our view of historical account. Stephen Frears’ The Lost King is such a film. Writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope have based their screenplay on The King’s Grave: The Discovery of Richard lll’s Lost Burial Place and the Clues it Holds by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones and the film tells of the remarkable perseverance of Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) to unearth the final resting place of Britain’s last Plantagenet monarch, Richard lll, who was slain by Henry Tudor’s army at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. For centuries it was believed that Richard’s body was then flung into the River Soar in Leicester. Branded as a usurper and immortalized as a villain by William Shakespeare, Richard was denied a royal burial and his mortal remains were never found.
That is until amateur historian Langley attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard lll and had a funny feeling, an instinctive epiphany that led her on a path to discover the real story behind the defamed king and his whereabouts. Writers Coogan and Jones have written a gripping and fascinating account of Langley’s dogged and resolute determination to unravel the truth and with the help of historian, John Ashdown-Hill (James Fleet), members of the Richard lll Society and archaeologist Richard Buckley (Mark Addy) discover the last resting place beneath Greyfriars Church that existed on the site of a Leicester car park.
What ensues in director Frear’s riveting drama is a story of personal struggle against the opposing forces of obstructive bureaucracy, cynical misogyny, egotistical superiority and academic snobbery. Frears is a master storyteller, swiftly and sharply building tension, springing surprise and galvanizing disbelief at the constant barrage of obstacles faced by Langley in her quest. I find myself growing more and more infuriated by the obstinate resistance of the pompous put down by the academic, the snide arrogance and opportunism of the University of Leicester’s Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning Richard Taylor (Lee Ingleby) and the abiding dismissal of Langley’s “feelings” and belief in omens, such as the letter R painted in an officer’s car park at the Adult Social Services office. Is evidence only ever to be determined by tangible fact? Throughout Langley converses with the apparition of Richard lll (Harry Lloyd). It is an effective device that provides an insight into Langley’s doubts and her desperate quest for answers.
Writers Coogan and Jones offer a human side to Langley’s story. We are introduced to a woman who must battle the debilitating ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as well as face the challenges of pursuing her goal, while being disingenuously accused of obsessive behaviour. She is a single mother of two teenagers, although she is eventually supported in her quest by her estranged husband John (Steve Coogan)
Frears is an actor’s director. Not only does he keep the action taut and enticing, but he elicits excellent performances from his cast. Born in Leicester, Frears holds The Lost King close to his heart and the film is directed with integrity and this is imbued in the performances of his actors and film crew. Central to the film’s success is the outstanding performance of Sally Hawkins in the role of Philippa Langley, whose belief and devotion to the truth is finally realized when Richard lll’s remains are finally discovered in 2012, exhumed and given ceremonial burial.
Hawkins gives a triumphant performance. I am profoundly moved by the treatment she receives and the struggles she must endure to achieve her goal. Her resilience and determination are inspirational and history owes her far greater recognition for her pursuit of truth and vindication. Doubt has been cast in the past on William Shakespeare’s propagandist interpretation of Richard lll in Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, but it is Frear’s film that will reveal the truth and the real story behind Langley’s Looking For Richard Project. The film has been called a comedy/drama. I did not find it comical. It is a simple investigative film that traces the events that led to the eventual discovery. It is not without controversy, highlighted by Langley’s speech to a school group at the end of the film, contrasted with opulent self-congratulation at the University. The debate surrounding due recognition will prevail but Langley’s role in this eventful historical discovery is not to be discounted,
The Lost King is not to be missed - not by the general public, nor historians, nor detective story enthusiasts and especially not by lovers of Shakespeare’s twisted tale of the last Plantagenet.