We all remember where we were when we heard the news they had found Richard III.
He was buried under a parking lot in Leicester, which seemed both amusing and appropriate to those of us English history buffs who are also confirmed Tudor partisans.
We saw pieces of the press conference, heard about the skeletal and DNA evidence and were cheered at a find of tremendous historical significance.
What we didn’t know was that the driving force behind the find, and the decision to dig up that lot was a determined amateur who spent over seven years doing research and honing her intuition, Philippa Langley.
“The Lost King” is a fun, informative, and entertaining – if sometimes a little manipulative – dramatization of those events leading up to the exhumation of Richard and the immediate aftermath.
We first meet Langley (Sally Hawkins, of “Blue Jasmine” and “The Shape Of Water”) when she’s co-parenting her two sons with her ex-husband, dissatisfied at work and having to put up with the Edinburgh weather. She attends a local performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” where the lead’s sympathetic portrayal of the title character captures her imagination and her interest.
After buying out the local bookstore of Richard III bios, Philippa becomes convinced that Richard is the victim of a character assassination by the playwright in the service of his Tudor sponsors. Fortunately for her, a card for the local chapter of the like-minded Richard III Society is tucked away in one of the volumes.
There, she not only meets her support group, she also finds out that Richard’s grave has been lost to history.
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She’s found her mission, although she appears to lose her job in its pursuit. Unsurprisingly, her ex-husband, played by Steve Coogan, treats her monomania with bemused concern, especially since her income is needed to help support the boys.
She’s also treated with undisguised contempt by one professor and dismissed with condescending sympathy by another, at least until he finds out she can raise the money to fund the dig.
Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “The Grifters”) keeps the general air light, while not losing sight of the importance of the work Langley is engaged in. Both Hawkins and Coogan turn in winning performances, with Hawkins being particularly likable, projecting both vulnerability and determination.
American audiences will most likely recognize Coogan from “Philomena,” which he also co-wrote with Jeff Pope with whom he reunites on this script. And Mark Addy (“Game of Thrones,” “The Full Monty”) is both appealing and not entirely trustworthy as the somewhat mercenary Richard Buckley, who needs the money from the dig to keep his department at the University in business.
Any review must make reference to one curious but ultimately successful device – Philippa’s imagining of and talking to Richard III himself, played by the actor who had the title role in that Shakespeare performance.
Coogan and Frears could have cheated here, having Richard drop hints or clues, but they steer clear of that, and having Richard as a character helps humanize him for us so we sympathize more with Philippa. One needn’t conflate finding Richard III’s remains with rehabilitating him personally and politically, although the film seems to do just that.
“The Lost King” is a little formulaic at times: the plucky underdog outsider, mocked and derided as obsessive and perhaps a little crazy, using her intuition to go where the professionals won’t. The manipulation is how she maintains her dignity and self-respect as she sees her hard-won victory snatched from her by those same institutions.
The intended parallel to Richard III as victim of the slanders of the powerful is clear.
This would just be normal storytelling if the movie didn’t use the names of real people. As you can imagine, there’s been some controversy over how some of those people are portrayed in the movie, and some back-and-forth about how Langley was actually treated.
It’s hard for the casual viewer to know what to take at face value and what to believe was exaggerated for dramatic effect.
For example, at the press conference announcing that the remains really were those of Richard, Langley was not on the platform with the rest of the participants. The university claims that it included her in all of the post-confirmation press conferences, but this may be stretching it a little.
She was acknowledged more or less in passing towards the end of that press conference, but the YouTube video of the event clearly shows her in the audience, as in the film, not on stage.
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Langley was, as has been noted, the driving force behind the decision to dig in the parking lot in the first place and ended up raising much of the money for the project herself. The movie condenses over seven years of research into a few months.
But the teams of professionals carried out the dig and did the DNA matching that proved Richard’s identity. And contra the movie’s intimations of sexism, a number of those academic leads were women. The snobbery, however, remains plausible.
Those are compromises than almost any dramatization will have to make.
In the end, “The Lost King” sticks mostly to the facts, both contemporary and historical, and is well worth the time, even if you don’t think you care much about 500 year old battles and dynasties.
Joshua Sharf is a Senior Fellow for the free-market Independence Institute, focusing on public pension and public finance issues. By day a web developer, he has also found time to run for the state legislature, be a state editor for WatchdogWire, write for the Haym Salomon Center, and produce a local talk radio show. He has a Bachelors in Physics from U.Va., and a Masters in Finance from the University of Denver, and lives in Denver with his wife, Susie and their son, David. His work also appears frequently in Complete Colorado and American Greatness.