A couple of years ago, the gently charming Brit pic The Dig told the “true-life” story of autodidactic archaeologist Basil Brown (played with low-key aplomb by Ralph Fiennes) being sidelined from the unearthing of the Sutton Hoo treasures by a snobby establishment attempting to take credit for his work. That winning formula is revisited in this latest seriocomic drama from the team behind 2013’s Oscar-nominated Philomena: director Stephen Frears, writer Jeff Pope and writer-actor Steve Coogan. In The Lost King, it’s Sally Hawkins’s amateur historian-sleuth Philippa Langley who gets to butt heads with the archaeological establishment as she pursues her dream to find the mortal remains of the much-maligned King Richard III.
“Sent before my time into this breathing world,” is how Shakespeare’s Richard famously describes himself, “scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me.” These are words that pierce Philippa’s troubled heart, her ME having left her feeling shunned and ridiculed, her job at risk. Meanwhile at home, her marriage to John (Steve Coogan) has collapsed, yet the two remain tetchily close, sharing the care of their young sons.
When Philippa reads a biography of Richard that highlights the disconnect between his reputation (a deformed, wicked usurper) and his “true” self (none of the above), she resolves to set the record straight. So, after a couple of pub meetings with fellow Ricardians (self-described oddballs and misfits), she’s banging on the doors of the establishment, seeking funding to dig up Richard’s bones, which she has become convinced lie under a car park in Leicester.
Anyone familiar with the real-life story (which is presumably everybody) already knows the stranger-than-fiction twist; that Langley was guided to that car park by “an overwhelming urge” that left her with “goosebumps” when she stood on a particular spot, spookily marked with an “R”. In The Lost King, the puntastic truth that Langley followed a “hunch” is dramatised through visions of a handsomely theatrical King Richard (Harry Lloyd) who haunts Philippa’s waking dreams and leads her search, sometimes on horseback.
Such an outlandish dramatic conceit is par for the course for Coogan and Pope, whose script for Philomena sent Coogan and Judi Dench on a cinematic trip to the US despite the fact that Philomena Lee actually stayed at home while journalist Martin Sixsmith travelled to Washington to search for her son. Here, the exact nature of this faintly ridiculous regal apparition is kept more ambiguous, although Philippa’s bafflement about his existence does appear to be “real”. Elsewhere, Frears intercuts her ex-partner John complaining that a gun is being held to his head with an actual gun firing ceremonially over Edinburgh – an indication of the film’s metaphorical subtlety.
There’s a sense of history repeating, too, in the accusations that The Lost King has unfairly painted real-life characters as villains for dramatic purposes. In one particularly memorable scene from Philomena, the cruel Sister Hildegarde seethes to Sixsmith that “those girls have nobody to blame but themselves and their own carnal incontinence”, yet in actuality the real Hildegarde died several years before Sixsmith’s investigations began. In The Lost King, it’s the University of Leicester that draws the pantomime hisses and boos, with Lee Ingelby playing deputy registrar Richard Taylor as a smarmy glory hunter, mocking Philippa before stealing credit for her achievement.
Langley has said that she was indeed “sidelined and marginalised” by the academics, but Taylor has accused The Lost King of creating “an artificial narrative of a sexist, male-dominated university [by] removing all the key female academic leads”. Mark Addy’s portrayal of Dr Richard Buckley, who throws in his lot with Philippa after his own position becomes perilous, may be more amiable, but Buckley too has complained that “there is no truth to our department being under threat of closure or my job being on the line” and describes these plot points as “just nonsense”.
None of which affects the film’s evident dramatic appeal, as Hawkins breathes tremulously vulnerable life into a character who overcomes apparently insurmountable obstacles to prove to the world that she deserves to be taken seriously – the true heart of the piece. Whatever its inconsistencies, The Lost King is an underdog story that proves a perfect vehicle for Hawkins’s reliably winning screen presence.