The Lost King review – Frears and Coogan’s Richard III excavation story rewrites its own history

Sally Hawkins is amiable enough as the amateur historian who locates the long-dead monarch – but the uneven script digs its own grave

This peculiar, tonally uncertain, quirky-solemn-sentimental movie is based on the true story of Philippa Langley, likably played here by Sally Hawkins, the amateur British history enthusiast who in 2012 became globally famous for discovering the remains of Richard III beneath a Leicester car park.

By her own account, Langley was a member of the Richard III Society, which campaigns to rescue the Plantagenet king’s reputation from Shakespeare’s Tudor-era slanders. With passionate dedication, indefatigable research and some inspired detective work and intuition (the movie gets the “hunch” gag out of the way quickly), Langley was the driving force behind the archaeological dig that found the skeleton. But to get things done, she had to battle the academic establishment’s pomposity, complacency and sexism.

Exactly how accurate this is appears to be up for debate: the academics concerned have recently said they were actually supportive and are being turned into bad guys for the sake of a good story – which, come to think of it, was what Shakespeare was supposed to have done with Richard III.

Sally Hawkins with Steve Coogan.
Dedication … Sally Hawkins with Steve Coogan. Photograph: Graeme Hunter

Mark Addy plays Dr Richard Buckley, the (real-life) Leicester archaeologist in charge of the historic dig who helps Langley at first but then arguably seems to let her down a bit by not doing enough to acknowledge her central importance to the project. (The closing credits reveal that Langley got the MBE for her work — but not that Buckley got the superior OBE.) Co-writer and producer Steve Coogan plays Langley’s supportive ex-partner John, and Harry Lloyd is the actor who played Richard III in the Shakespeare production that inspired Langley and also plays the ghostly vision of the king who appears comfortingly (but mostly silently) to Langley in full RSC regalia and crown.

These latter scenes make the film odd and unrelaxed. Clearly it was felt that Richard III has to have some presence in the drama. But the movie is so earnestly keen to get away from the “evil” caricature that he is a mostly mute, boring presence of assumed goodness and wisdom.

Shakespeare got it historically wrong but dramatically right; the scenes in the film reverse this by subtracting the king’s charismatic wickedness and putting nothing in its place. Hawkins’ private scenes with her hero-king could have been funny or dramatic but they needed dialogue. Instead, her partner and kids think she is just talking to herself – and Alexandre Desplat’s score over the opening credits actually pastiches Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho music: a huge misjudgment, surely?

The film grapples uneasily with the key question of why non-historians or non-royalists should care about Richard III anyway. The script, by Coogan and Jeff Pope, takes on the difficult task of giving Philippa Langley and Richard III something in common. Just as Richard was libelled and his alleged disability held against him as an odious stigma, so Philippa feels that her employer at her telesales business is holding her ME against her.

She points out that the Tudors exaggerated his disagreeable appearance and may have invented the “hunchback” myth to discredit him, a line of argument that has to be quietly sidelined when the dig reveals that Richard did have scoliosis and Shakespeare did sort of get that right. And she is very emotional about making it clear that Richard was no usurper but had a valid claim to the title, which seems a naive and maudlin lesson to take away from all this, as English history so often shows kingship being violently and arbitrarily enforced on the field of battle.

You might compare this to a previous Frears/Coogan underdog historical movie, Philomena, with Judi Dench as the courageous woman trying to find her lost child, a quest that has a real emotional and personal force. This doesn’t as much. It’s a fascinating story but the resulting film insists on a kooky relatability that isn’t really there. A misfire.

• The Lost King screened at the Toronto film festival and is released on 7 October in the UK.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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