The Lost King review: Discovery of Richard III’s skeleton is farcically replayed in Frears and Coogan’s drama

Dir: Stephen Frears. Starring: Sally Hawkins, Steve Coogan, Harry Lloyd. 12A, 108 minutes.

The true lives of so many kings, queens, and emperors have been lost to history – their faces scratched off coins, their names scrubbed from the record, and, in the case of Richard III, their stories turned into villainous pageantry by one William Shakespeare. Separating fact from historical propaganda is steady and ponderous work, a series of slow-motion spats confined to lecture theatres and academic annuals. It’s hardly the stuff of celluloid dreams. That’s what led to the hypocrisy of The Lost King, Stephen Frears’s comedy drama about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. Its self-congratulatory crusade to restore its subject’s reputation has, for the sake of entertainment, distorted reality to the point that it borders on farce.

The film, supposedly, champions the course correction of historical narratives. Firstly, there’s that of Richard III, branded a usurper and a murderer, despite there being no concrete evidence that he actually dispatched his nephews, the “Princes in the Tower” – the deposed 12-year-old King Edward V and his nine-year-old brother, Richard, Duke of York. Secondly, there’s that of amateur historian Philippa Langley (here played by Sally Hawkins), whose dedicated campaigning led to the discovery of Richard’s lost remains in 2012, buried beneath a car park in Leicester. Her name was subsequently excluded from the archaeological dig certificate.

It’s true that Langley, on her very first visit to the car park, felt overcome by the sudden sensation that something of great importance lay beneath her feet. She even took the “R”, painted on the tarmac to indicate a reserved spot, as a cosmic sign. Frears, re-teaming with Philomena screenwriters Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, takes this real-life detail as licence to paint Langley as the Joan of Arc of modern archaeology. She’s haunted by visions of Richard III (Harry Lloyd), who happens to look exactly like the actor in the local Shakespeare production that first sparked her obsession. Her friends all think she’s in the middle of a breakdown. But, nevertheless, she persists.

There’s an inkling here that Langley was drawn to this figure because of the way Shakespeare monsterises his disability, the scoliosis that branded Richard as a “hunchback”, as an outward sign of inward sin. Langley – and this is true to fact – has ME (or chronic fatigue syndrome) and finds herself sidelined at work because of it. But it’s a surface-level kinship that’s never expressed in any meaningful way beyond a few, over-egged catchphrases. She loudly chastises a Richard III detractor for thinking that a “twisted spine equals a twisted personality”. The film pauses for a moment – as if the audience were expected to break out in applause. Those same, frustrating limitations are placed on the film’s depiction of sexism and classism in archaeological academia. Alexandre Desplat’s score tries its best to fill the vacant spots and induce a sense of grandeur. So does Hawkins’s typically committed performance.

Having erased the work already done by historians such as Annette Carson and David Baldwin in pinpointing Richard III’s burial site, the script puts aside Langley’s own rigorous research in order to elevate her pure, magical intuition as a worthier guide. Her relationship with the rest of the archaeological team is depicted as almost purely combative (much to the consternation of their real equivalents). We’re meant to react with disdain when they don’t want to expend money and time on chasing vibes alone. At times, it borders on anti-intellectualism. Coogan, who plays Langley’s dutiful, estranged husband John, at one point cautions her about our tendency to purely “demonise or sanctify” others. So why does The Lost King think it can undo one form of malevolent villainisation by creating enemies of its own?