M, 108 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
It’s careless losing a king, but finding his body under a carpark nearly five hundred later is hard to believe. Yet this incredible story is true, and has been a must for screen since the body of King Richard III was exhumed from a carpark in Leicester ten years ago.
Clearly, one of the reasons he was lost was because no one much cared to find him. Richard III was the arch villain, the character we loved to hate, a child killer, a wife killer and usurper and more. Evil to the core. A character who actors are always keen to portray, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes among them.
Poor Richard, the last of the Plantagenet line. Only two years on the throne before he was turfed out by the Tudors. Elizabeth I was queen when Shakespeare wrote his famous play, a century after Richard’s death. The playwright’s raft of history plays was, inter alia, performed to help legitimise his queen’s Tudor line and the political order of the day.
Then early in the 21st century along came Philippa Langley, who is today president of the Scottish branch of the Richard III society. She read everything she could lay her hands on about the king, discovering an important fact concerning the former Greyfriars, a friary in Leicester where his body had been buried. She had read up on the king, concluded that he was judged unfairly in life, like her, and that she would take up his cause. She is portrayed here with winning charm by the unsinkable Sally Hawkins.
It is astonishing to realise that Richard III was, apparently, discovered due to the persistence and dedication of this woman
On screen, Philippa is a single mum with two boys. Not on unfriendly terms with her ex, John (Steve Coogan), but struggling at work with chronic fatigue syndrome that she says flares up when she is stressed. After going to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III with her teenage son, she starts to experience visions of the king (Harry Lloyd), looking studly, if lost and forlorn. Winking at her from the atrium of her office building, and sitting on a bench down below her window.
There is a touch of ‘some day my prince will come’ about these interactions between mop-headed Hawkins and the handsome king, not so different in age. And why not. It works as a way of envisioning the maligned king, in another her-story from director Stephen Frears, and writers Coogan and Jeff Pope, the team behind Philomena, about a woman in search of her lost son.
There is such a wealth of material to go with here, The Lost King warranted a more imaginative treatment along, say, magic realist lines. Besides the whimsy of its central motif, the ghost of Richard, the film is rather bogged down in the here and now, with its bland, Leicester city architecture and streetscapes.
Langley, ‘the cake lady’, was apparently seriously patronised by certain medieval experts and members of the administration at the University of Leicester, and other detractors at the time. The way they apparently tried to manoeuvre her out of the picture when it became clear she had found Richard, is rather shocking.
The real Philippa Langley is a writer today who like, her character here, was working in marketing and advertising when she developed her consuming interest in the lost king. For good reason, really. It seems there were positives about the wicked hunchback Shakespeare caricatured. Richard III had held positive views, like innocent until proven guilty, and he supported the printing revolution.
Moreover, exploring the net shows little if no evidence of his supposed crime of infanticide. No one knows who dispatched the little princes in the Tower. The king’s famous ‘winter of our discontent’ perspective in Shakespeare might be, for all we know, completely bogus.
The Richard III backstory is fascinating human drama, with a wealth of interesting recent and medieval historical detail. However, this sweet film from Frears and his team doesn’t really make enough use of the potential the source material offers. Magical realism anyone?
The Lost King will still charm you. Both Hawkins and Lloyd manage to persuade during implausible scenes that could have been unconvincing. And an impossible dream that comes good is welcome during the festive season.