Early on in The Lost King, we see the chronically fatigued Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) spring to life during a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. As the maligned monarch describes the hunchback that distances people from him, the bags under Philippa’s eyes rise and her pale face grows flush as she relates to his disability. In this moment, he speaks to her across oceans of time.
A lesser film would hit you over the head with an upbeat score and sing-song narration here, but writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope trust the audience to understand the significance of the moment, and director Stephen Frears trusts Hawkins to sell it with her eyes alone. Intimate, understated scenes like this set The Lost King apart from the kind of sugary-sweet, inspirational true story you might expect. It presents “the truth” as something that will remain malleable long after the lights go up in the theater.
Shortly before her epiphany during the play, we see Philippa face discrimination from her boss because of her disability — despite the fact that it doesn’t affect her work beyond making her look tired. She goes on to abandon her dead-end sales job for what seems like an even more hopeless dead end — the search for King Richard’s remains. She embarks on this quest to rebuild not just his reputation but her own. Just as he didn’t usurp the throne out of bitterness about his social standing, she does not act out of weakness and anger but rather an appreciation for history and adventure.
However, as Coogan wisely points out in the role of her ex-husband and the film’s co-writer, none of us are entirely good or entirely bad. “We’re in the middle,” he says. This insight later feels ironic given how the film goes on to villainize former Leicester University registrar Richard Taylor (Lee Ingleby) for sidelining Philippa’s efforts. But if you read his real-life complaints about the film, Taylor’s overly defensive demeanor seems to only justify his depiction as the antagonist.
While many viewers may hope for neat and tidy resolutions, The Lost King is refreshing in making you question the portrayal of certain characters (like Taylor) and events (like the media circus surrounding the dig for King Richard). After all, this is a story about not taking everything at face value.
Beyond one conventional confrontation near the end, the film doesn’t dwell on scenes of Philippa demanding the credit and respect she’s due. Frears, Coogan and Pope trust us to recognize the film itself as the proper tip of the crown to her. And they combat anyone’s dismissal of Philippa or women like her with a title card that reads, “Based on a true story — her story.”
A lion’s share of the credit for the film’s power belongs to Hawkins for a performance that neither exaggerates Philippa’s struggles nor makes her a larger-than-life, infallible hero. We see her put people in uncomfortable positions for the sake of her pursuit, but Hawkins also conveys how conflicted she feels about doing so, emphasizing the complexity of such personal endeavors.
Philippa’s journey in the film happened roughly 10 years ago, but women like her are sadly still fighting to make their voices heard. But as long as people keep telling stories like The Lost King, there is hope.