THE LOST KING (2022) is a quiet yet satisfying movie that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Filmed in 2022, it just got its U.S. release this weekend. Directed by Stephen Frears, who directed THE QUEEN (2006) and way back when, DANGEROUS LIASONS (1988), THE LOST KING is based on the true story of one woman’s obsession with finding the grave of Richard III.
It’s 2012 and Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) is not in a happy place in her life. She is separated from her husband John (Steve Coogan) who has moved out, which makes taking care of their two boys all the more difficult. Work is not going well, as she watches much younger coworkers with very little experience get promotions instead of her. And she suffers from a chronic condition which keeps her exhausted all the time.
One day, while watching the play Richard III with her son, she is struck by one of the lines in the play where Richard says because his deformity, a hunched back, is so hated, he will push back with even more hate. This line doesn’t ring true to her, as she doesn’t believe someone would spew hate because of their disability, and she questions the accuracy of Shakespeare’s interpretation of the usurper king. She joins the local Richard III society and begins reading up on the king, and when she learns that his grave was never found, she becomes inspired to find it. The rest of the movie follows her quest to find Richard’s grave and chronicles all the adversity she has to get through to accomplish this task, being both an amateur and a woman.
Along the way, she starts seeing Richard III (Harry Lloyd) appear to her, and while she knows this is just an apparition from her own mind, she can’t help but feel that it’s something more, that the spirit of Richard himself is driving her forward to find his grave. And so, she persists, not only for Richard, but for herself, as she discovers that this process has energized her, and she feels more alive than she has in quite a long time.
THE LOST KING never really takes off or puts everything it has all together, but it’s a movie that is full of lots of little moments and points, and when summed up, it ends up being a decently satisfying movie with important things to say about the empowerment of women and also how history is not always accurately recorded.
Sally Hawkins is perfect as Philippa Langley. Hawkins, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work in THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), captures Langley’s drive and determination as she powers through her own disability, her chronic fatigue disease. My favorite part of her performance is she never allows Langley to deviate from her soft-spoken roots, and so while she perseveres to the point where she is the person who gets ahead of the professionals and leads the way to the improbable discovery of Richard III’s grave, she doesn’t let things get to her head. She remains a good person throughout.
That’s not to say that Langley didn’t have a big chip on her shoulder. She did. As she says in the movie, she doesn’t like the way some people seem to enjoy going out of their way to make people feel inferior. Langley faced push back from start to finish, from men taking issue with her use of the word “feelings,” when she would offer that as reasoning behind her thoughts for how she planned to proceed, to later when the University refused to give her credit for the discovery. In fact, this push back continues today, as the University of Leicester took issue with the interpretation of events as depicted in the movie, claiming that the film gives too much credit to Langley. Well, the movie is about her after all, and as stated at the beginning of the film, it’s her story.
The scenes where Langley pushes back against men who claim to know more than her are fun to watch. The screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Langley’s husband John in the movie, Philippa Langley, and Jeff Pope, does a wonderful job carving out Langley’s character, and since Langley herself is one of the screenwriters here, I guess that’s to be expected! And it also does a nice job with the story of Richard III, how Langley believes he was wrongly recorded in history as a villain and usurper, because the new king wanted history recorded this way after Richard’s death, and since Richard wasn’t alive to refute things, history stood. It was important for Langley for Richard’s burial to acknowledge that he was the rightful king and not just a usurper, and this was important to her, at least as depicted in the movie, because that’s what irked her, the way people struck down those they thought were inferior or wouldn’t fight back. Or in Richard’s case couldn’t fight back because he was dead.
The screenplay also does a nice job with Langley’s family dynamic. I rarely like the plot point where the events in a movie bring an estranged couple back together again, but here it works. A lot of it has to do with Steve Coogan’s performance, but more of it is the writing itself. Coogan plays John Langley as a man who has grown tired of his wife because of her troubles, and while he has moved out and is seeing another woman, he still returns to Philippa’s home and helps her cook meals for the boys. At first, he dismisses her newfound passion, as it sounds crazy to him, but as he reads about Richard III and sees Philippa becoming empowered and happy, he changes his tune and supports her.
There’s a scene where their youngest son witnesses Philippa talking to Richard III, but of course he only sees her talking to herself. So, he tells his dad that mommy is talking to herself, and John replies, “We all do.” It’s one of the best lines in the movie and a key moment that tells the audience that John is now there for his ex-wife. And later the scene where he makes his boys stop playing video games so he can tell them the good news of what their mom just discovered, and Philippa hears her boys cheering her over the phone is priceless.
Coogan is an enjoyable actor who has been around for a long time. I enjoyed him a few years back when he played Stan Laurel in STAN & OLLIE (2018), which incidentally was written by fellow THE LOST KING screenwriter Jeff Pope.
Mark Addy is also memorable as archeologist Richard Buckley, who at first quickly dismisses Philippa’s request to dig in the city, but when the university cuts his funding, he changes his tune and accepts her offer. The two butt heads throughout, but when the university refuses to give her credit, it’s Buckley who takes offense and speaks up on her behalf.
James Fleet enjoys some fine moments as John Ashdown-Hill, a researcher and professor who offers Philippa support. And while Harry Lloyd isn’t asked to do much beyond smile, look handsome, and say a few words as Richard III, he does it all with royal style.
Director Stephen Frears effectively navigates through a subdued yet interesting story that never holds its high notes for very long. So, while THE LOST KING won’t blow you away, it will hold your interest for its quiet one hour and forty-eight-minute running time.
And that’s because it has two intriguing stories to tell, the one about Richard III, and the other about Philippa Langley and her efforts to both help a historical figure get the recognition she believed he deserved, and to help herself find some meaning and purpose in her life.
On top of this, the movie has two wonderful performances by Sally Hawkins in the lead role as Philippa, and Steve Coogan in a supporting role as her husband John. The two actors lead a solid ensemble cast as they bring this notable story of one woman’s passionate quest to correct history to life.
As I said at the outset, THE LOST KING never quite fires on all cylinders. But it makes enough of its points and captures enough small moments to make it a worthwhile trip to the theater, especially if you enjoy stories about perseverance and determination and history.
I give it two and a half stars.
Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line
Three and a half stars- Excellent
Three stars – Very Good
Two and a half stars – Good
Two Stars – Fair
One and a half stars – Pretty Weak
One star- Poor
Zero stars – Awful