An unlikely but true story, this charming film depicts the long search by an ordinary housewife to locate and unearth the grave of Richard the Third, a King whose reputation reasts largely on Shakespeare’s interpretation of him. History tells us Richard was “ a usurper” who only became monarch my murdering two princes whose claim to the throne was stronger. And he was a hunchback too and is often to be seen portrayed as a grotesque. It’s a version Philippa herself sees in a production in Edinburgh where she lives with her two sons and estranged husband played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the script.
I remember the news of Richard’s body being found under a car park in Leicester but was intrigued to discover just how this came about especially that all the facts were already known but nobody had pieced them together. Stuck in a job where her age now counts against her Philippa starts to become fascinated by Richard’s reputation and the mystery surrounding him finding it much more interesting than her own life.
Stephen Frears’ film scores highly in making what sounds like a topic more suitable ot a book into something that comes alive. Despite the relatively low key story which revolves around d meetings and maps he uses very grand incidental music of the sort you’d normally expect in an action film. And brilliantly, he also has Philippa `interacting with Richard the Third who in her head looks like the actor she saw in that production and is played by Harry Lloyd complete with the full regalia and crown. Even though he’s not real and only reflects what she is thinking it shows the viewer how she imagines him and it’s a long way from the figure with which we’re familiar.
The third aspect that makes this work so well is that it doesn’t overplay the serious drama. Its witty at times- when Philippa first visits the car park she fixates on a big letter R painted on the ground which turns out to be for reserved parking. Some of the exchanges between Philippa and her husband ## are amusing, as you might expect from Coogan who brings a light touch to his scenes.
Over time Philippa becomes quite the expert, first joining the Richard the Third society, the Ricardians, who knew there was such a club? They’re a slightly barmy bunch – one man we see has a Tudor hair style- but through them she becomes engaged with historians and eventually finds herself seeking funding. Throughout, the minutiae of committees, clubs and organisations is depicted with good humour and insight as is the self belief of some academics and the grabbing reach of businesses.
Its clear there are parallels in the stories of the King and Philippa who takes on the task and for the first time truly shows her academic potential. She sees something of herself in Richard too, for her ME has prevented her from fulfilling her full potential. Richard similarly has been wrongly ascribed attributes and deeds without real proof so his reputation needs rescuing. There are certainly things she finds a that I never knew such as Richard having apparently introduced the idea of being innocent until proven guilty as well as being something of a champion of the poor. She believes that had he not been smeared by the Tudors his reign would have been longer and impressive. When she finds the body she want it to be buried with full state honours.
The story is also about dealing with big business- at first Leicester University are less than enthusiastic about funding and pull out at the last minute leaving her to crowd fund through the Ricardians. Of course when the body is actually found the university take much of the credit.
The Lost King is truly engaging and enjoyable with an authentic central performance from Sally Hawkins as the tenacious Philippa really conveying the character’s zeal for the search. It’s not an impression of the real Phillipa but shows just how much she worked for the result and wasn’t going to let it be wholly snatched away from her at the end. There’s great support from Steve Coogan, Mark Addy as the archaeologist who is conflicted between hers and the University’s priorities. Harry Lloyd’s whose twinkly Richard is a straight foil for her doubts, concerns and theories. The script is light and fluid, never too melodramatic or too funny just right. Lee Ingleby also shines as the opportunity spotting university registrar.
Its important to note that the opening says “Based on a true story- her story” when considering accusations from some of the real life people that the idea of Phillipa being marginalised by men is not true though interestingly they don’t deny she was marginalised after doing the hard research. And it makes a neat postscript to watching the film to discover this sort of thing. I’m sure she didn’t really visualise Richard either, films do take some dramatic licence. So whether you believe it is all true or not The Lost King is an absorbing, low key drama that shows how determination can win through in the end.