Sally Hawkins in "The Lost King"
From the team behind the Oscar-nominated “Philomena” comes another breezy adaptation of a true story. Directed by Stephen Frears, with a screenplay by Jeff Pope and actor-writer Steve Coogan, “The Lost King” is based on amateur historian Philippa Langley’s discovery of King Richard III’s long-lost remains in a Leicester car park in 2012. The film aims to give credit where its due by focusing on Langley (played by an effortlessly charming Sally Hawkins), whose historic finding appears sidelined by academics. She challenges Leicester University and all others in her way to restore the King’s defamed reputation. The story glides by and is engaging enough to follow along, but doesn’t amount to much beyond the sum of its parts. Frears explores historical material from an often lightweight perspective; whether it’s the aforementioned “Philomena” or the opera biopic “Florence Foster Jenkins” for example, he maintains a paint-by-numbers approach that can overlook complexities of character. He has a remarkable track record of working with a plethora of wonderful dames and legends – Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer. The list continues with Hawkins, who paints beyond numbers and carries “The Lost King” on her shoulders to a degree just as successful. Though much like the actors listed, she is guided by pedestrian storytelling. The biggest weakness lies in the screenplay, which relies heavily on a limited thread of a story and stretches a piece of fiction too thin.
“The Lost King” starts with the promise of something jubilant. Alexandre Desplat’s twisty score during the opening credits has you strapped in for a diverting drama. The music evokes the feeling that something big is about to happen, a great parallel to where the story begins. On the cusp of a centuries-old discovery, Philippa Langley is about to go on a journey towards commissioning a historical investigation on King Richard III. Langley’s interest in the King begins early on in the film, with a local Shakespeare production of Richard III. She notices how the play leans into misconceptions about him as a murderer and usurper. Most of all, she feels a connection to the way his disability is misconstrued, and the way her own experience with chronic fatigue is dismissed. This sparks a curiosity in her that doesn’t go away. After the local production, she starts seeing visions of Richard III (played by a poker-faced Harry Lloyd). She considers his haunting presence a reaffirming sign – that his story should be retold, and that she should be the one to pursue it. With a break from her job and the push of a local ‘Richard III enthusiasts’ group, Philippa is on her way to make history.
The film is at its core about a woman finding her voice and using it. Watching Hawkins go against the rulebook and stand her ground throughout is certainly satisfying. She gives her character’s journey heart and entertainment. While admirable to center Langley in this narrative, are the trio of Frears, Coogan, and Pope the ones to successfully tell a dramatized version of her experience? Not really. Their collaborative efforts search for moments to tug at your heartstrings but fall short with an approach too lightweight for its own good. Given the focus on Hawkins’ character in moving the story along, the screenplay avoids a more in-depth exploration of her. Hawkins does her best to ground heightened realism and play Langley’s campaign with conviction. Her efforts are let down by a film that glosses over rich details and glides on frivolity to tell the story. The twee elements of “The Lost King” can be endearing, but the film doesn’t strike the balance of being the feel-good true story it wants to be.
Given recent news of potential legal action against the filmmakers for their portrayal of Leicester University as villainous, “The Lost King” is based on a true story to an extent. The artistic liberties taken unfortunately don’t have much effect on elevating the film beyond an exercise of simply shedding light around Philippa Langley’s curiosities that led to her discovery. With the direction and screenplay on borderline autopilot, probing conversational scenes between characters fall flat. Even Steve Coogan, who appears in the film playing Langley’s disinterested husband, lacks energy and presence. Hawkins makes up for this in spades, though without the strengths of insightful and memorable storytelling to support her performance.
Without very much to say beyond what a Wikipedia page can lay out, “The Lost King” falls short in its own discovery as a standalone piece of work. What the film aims to illuminate through figments of imagination and a feel-good campaign story, is surmounted by reading about Philippa Langley’s real-life journey. The commitment of Hawkins to her craft, along with the joyousness of Desplat’s original score, are delightful hints of life. But the film falls short of the energy they bring to elevate the story. Frears’ oddly disorientated direction, along with an uneven screenplay and editing, contribute to an inconsistent tone. Floating somewhere between historical drama and whimsical fantasy, “The Lost King” is a sporadically charming and forgettable afterthought.