Movies based on true stories are best when they’re coolly revelational or specifically aestheticized. We want the history teacher leaning over their chairs at us, coloring history with anecdotes. The barfly who talks with their hands. The unexpected angle from a seasoned old-timer. When these historical fictions are smug or moralizing, when they take more pride in knowing the real way things shook out than in telling their story well, the magic drains away. Animosity seeps in. The ostensibly great yarn unravels, leaving us unwittingly seated for a lecture. Such is the case of The Lost King, where director Stephen Frears and his Philomena writing team of Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope condescend to us, making the discovery of King Richard III’s bones beneath a Leicester car park as tedious as possible.
That’s because it’s not about the discovery of a 500-year-old skeleton under a parking space. It’s not about winning the archeological lottery by finding the specific skeleton of a misplaced king. It’s not even about the legacy of King Richard, a man not merely forgotten (like his bones) but actively besmirched by those damned Tudors. It’s about Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) or, more specifically, about what Philippa Langley represents. The amateur historian who spearheaded the excavation of said car park—and who literally talks to a near-silent vision of King Richard III (Harry Lloyd) throughout the film—isn’t given a character in The Lost King, despite groan-inducing introductory titles slowly fading in “Her story” after the obligatory “Based on a true story.” She’s a personified reaction to a series of symbolic obstacles and Meaningful Conversations. Rather than archeological or historical procedure, the kind of bookish thrills teased by Alexandre Desplat’s opening score, we get sentimental instruction as familiar as the debunked Richard III.
The Lost King endlessly rails against Shakespeare’s slanderous theatrical depiction of the King, but it certainly isn’t reluctant to cartoonishly villainize real people to suit its narrative. Langley, played with shy steel by Hawkins, is a woman with an invisible disability (chronic fatigue syndrome) wading into a corner of the world—like most corners—dominated by politics and grumpy old white men. Hawkins knows how to play against the world, carrying herself with underdog dignity and a facial expression armed with accusation. You can see how each scene could easily, in the hands of two unsubtle male screenwriters, undermine omnipresent discrimination and sexism with caricature. Hawkins is handy with a self-righteous speech, backed up by the rare woman to pat her on the back, while the men in her way (from all corners of academia, like Lee Ingleby’s Richard Taylor, deputy registrar of Leicester University) cackle, gloat, belittle and connive to steal her glory. These characters and performances have all the nuance of a Jordan Peterson parody. The obstacles they present smash into us like broadswords across our temples. Nobody believes Langley—and certainly I believe that—but when Frears and his writers give us multiple “Um, we’re here for facts, not feelings” scenes as she sells her theory, it starts to feel like an HR training video.
What it’s training us in, with its entrenched desire to be a Message Picture, is one of several unclear elements in the dismal script. Is it about disability? Langley initially feels some kinship to Shakespeare’s evil hunchback; don’t judge people based on physical difference—that kind of thing. But then, she goes on to claim that this aspect of Richard’s legend was a Tudor lie, and when the skeleton is discovered to indeed have severe scoliosis, she seems…crestfallen? That’s on top of how the film treats her own chronic fatigue, mentioning it occasionally as just one more obstacle to overcome, but mostly juxtaposing it with her hallucinations to unflatteringly imply some connection—even mania, as others see her talking to herself. Not so feminist, The Lost King.
Sometimes, it seems like The Lost King wants to be a ghost story about a woman more generally haunted by injustice. Langley and other historians she bumps into—including a group called the Richard III Society, as insufferable as you’d expect those deeply invested in the reputation of a long-dead monarch to be—are hellbent on giving everyone they meet circuitous explanations about Richard III’s personal innocence. Ghost Richard doesn’t offer up any details (or much of anything in way of personality), so we just nod along as long as we can, our eyes glazing over until the movie deigns to wag its finger at us once again. If you don’t care about ancient lines of violent English succession, don’t worry, because The Lost King doesn’t try to make it interesting in the slightest.
Whatever formal boldness there is in Richard accompanying Langley as a silent companion (perhaps meant to imply an inescapable feeling of responsibility), it’s tonally confusing dead weight. Their scenes stop the film like a royal decree, its tepid visual shorthand trying to compensate for filmmaking bereft of any real storytelling.
The only intriguing choice in the entire film (not downright strange, like the inclusion of the ghost/hallucination/whatever) is Frears’ consistent use of well-framed wide shots that emphasize the architecture Langley travels through during her quest. Seeing her in context with the buildings and roads, history supporting them just a few unseen feet below, imbues some much-needed perspective into walk-and-talks—perspective missing from any of the scenes actually dealing with the historical research. In those, we see weathered copies of maps overlaid with modern ones, the overlaps projected onto a wall, but these developments are always undercut by cowardly jokes. Yet another area where it’s clear the filmmakers couldn’t decide on what kind of film they wanted to make, there’s no space for the excitement of discovery to develop along logical lines—the Idea A to Realization B progressions that make films like The Dig or even National Treasure compelling outside their characters—nor for awe to set in at the sheer longevity of these communities. The writers are so afraid that we won’t feel the right thing that they embrace a self-effacing humor that ensures we don’t feel anything.
For a film based on fascinating true events, it’s impressive that every element of The Lost King feels as false as a pretender to the throne. Did Langley’s sons, who care as little as we do about their mom’s obsession for the entirety of the film, really burst into cheers at the news that she found Richard’s bones? Did those cruel demons at the University of Leicester—who, in contrast to the film, actually did include Langley in their press conferences regarding the discovery—really try to steal her glory? Did semi-spiritual feelings of ideological kinship really help her persevere in her pursuit? Frears, with a cloying competence, shoots every line of Coogan and Pope’s woefully dramatized script so that we can’t escape these questions, even when our eyes fully roll away from the screen. This all might’ve actually happened, but it wouldn’t matter anyways: The Lost King can’t see the miracle right beneath its feet.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Steve Coogan, Harry Lloyd
Release Date: October 14, 2022 (Chicago International Film Festival)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.