Sally Hawkins stars as an amateur historian in search of the grave of King Richard III in director Stephen Frears’ uplifting true-story drama The Lost King.
Five hundred years of liesby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
45-year-old Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky) is living a relatively mundane and unfulfilling life in Edinburgh, frustrated and passed over for an opportunity at work while raising her two sons with her ex-husband John (Steve Coogan, Stan & Ollie).
Attending a production of Richard III, Philippa finds herself feeling unexpectedly drawn to the character of King Richard (Harry Lloyd, The Wife). Suffering herself from ME, she finds King Richard being judged as evil because of his disability (hunched back) deeply frustrating.
Soon Philippa is devouring books on Richard III, hunting through library archives and quizzing scholars during lectures and video calls. Upon discovering the Richard III Society her real quest begins; to find King Richard’s remains.
Motivated by more than just a desire to give him a proper burial, Philippa finds herself compelled to give King Richard a voice and prove him not to be simply a Shakespeare villain and usurper to the throne.
The story has a fantastical element; Philippa starts to see King Richard (also Lloyd) and gradually builds a connection with him. After she first sees the apparition during an agonisingly dull moment at her job, he begins to appear to her regularly and comes to help guide Philippa on her quest.
Increasingly, Leicester – as the location for King Richard’s final battle at Bosworth – becomes the focal point as Philippa hunts for funding and sponsorship and encounters archaeologist Richard Buckley (Mark Addy, The Full Monty). Initially sceptical, Richard tells Philippa to have faith in her research and in herself.
As a female amateur researcher, Philippa finds it a challenge to be taken seriously by some professionals; she is consistently judged as being feeling-led, but rapidly impresses most academics with how insightfully and intelligently she can argue Richard’s case.
The battleground of fact versus feeling in academia is one of the interesting themes explored in the film as is the nature of what is truth, how a reputation is created and developed over time and, as the story progresses, the issue of how credit and recognition is claimed for historical discoveries.
The rise to leading prominence of Sally Hawkins in recent years has been one of the most pleasing developments in British cinema. Since her breakout role as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, the Londoner has received srignificant Hollywood acclaim with two Oscar nominations (Blue Jasmine, The Shape of Water) and become known to a generation as the warm-hearted Mrs Brown in the Paddington films.
Here Hawkins is typically winning as a woman discovering a new passion, and finding her confidence and additional meaning in her life. In a key moment Philippa tells John that her research makes her feel energised and happy and Hawkins captures this uplift in her character’s life beautifully.
Co-writer Coogan creates layers, in a fairly small role, as Philippa’s ex-husband. John is initially surprised and dismissive of Philippa’s quest, poking fun at her, but gradually becomes supportive and proud of her pursuit.
As King Richard (and the actor who plays him in the production) Harry Lloyd is largely a silent figure looking at Philippa but he brings a handsome quiet power and gravitas to the King of Philippa’s imagination.
The Lost King shares DNA with the equally Frears-directed and Coogan-scripted Philomena – the central female character a woman on a mission with a number of amusingly witty lines and moments.
While Frears’ latest film is not a hugely cinematic experience, it is compelling and enjoyable throughout thanks to the unlikely true story and central performance from Hawkins.
The Lost King premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and is released on 7 October 2022 in the UK .