As you know if you’ve seen the Channel 4 documentary Richard III: The King in the Car Park, Philippa Langley in 2011 was an aspiring, Edinburgh-based screenwriter suffering from chronic ME. Her relationship with her husband, John, was strained; she struggled to take care of her two children. What changed everything was his budding interest, even obsession, with Richard III.
The latter, according to Langley, fell victim to Tudor propagandists and blamed Shakespeare, in particular, for portraying Richard as a hunchbacked nephew killer. The least she could do was find the guy’s remains and with the help of her fellow Ricardians, her own intuition and a group of scientists, she did. Langley – who by the way is the look-alike of real life activist Erin Brockovich – also dreamed of giving Richard a decent burial. She invested money, time and all the energy she had in this mission and, after endless slights and setbacks, she succeeded.
Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the team behind Philomena, have turned this material into a crowd-pleasing fairy tale, complete with a handsome and friendly ghost (played by Game of Thrones actor Harry Lloyd), who seduces our heroine (Sally Hawkins) and makes her husband (Coogan) jealous.
The Lost King may be frothy, but it’s also quietly subversive, genuinely funny, and could and should earn Sally Hawkins an Oscar/Baftas Best Actress nomination.
It would be an understatement to say that Hawkins isn’t following Brockovich’s route. Famous for her lack of vanity, the 46-year-old actress takes her desire to look peculiar to new heights (she wears a pair of reading glasses almost as big as her face). In other words, if Lloyd is the prince charming of the film, Hawkins makes him his indefatigable, sometimes heartbreaking little frog.
One of the most impressive aspects of the script is how it acknowledges Langley’s flaws. His take on Richard, initially, comes down to: he was a hottie, don’t treat him like a nottie. It’s only at the end that she stops seeing her curved spine as a problem (although the fact that her ghost always seems to have a straight back might prove controversial).
Speaking of which, some academics/scientists involved in the parking lot digs aren’t happy with the movie. You can kind of see why. Archaeologists and DNA experts from the University of Leicester who unearthed and identified the remains of Richard III sound grumpy and unsupportive. As for Richard Taylor of Lee Ingleby (assistant registrar of the university), he is a ruthless traitor. The actual Taylor is probably a lot nicer. Yet it is common knowledge that Langley was not asked to speak at a key press conference in 2013. The University’s top brass made the decision to sideline her. One of the morals of this story: share kindly.
The irony is that The Lost King, in addition to boosting Langley’s profile (it definitely sells her as an inspirational woman), could damage her reputation, not least because it exaggerates her hippy-dippy qualities. In the film, Langley is told by a sincerely supportive co-worker that she shouldn’t talk about her “feelings” and “intuition”, because such language plays on stereotypes about irrational women. So many facts about Richard III are still disputed by historians. Thanks to this film, Langley, now synonymous with the Ricardian movement, could find itself under attack from all sides.
The Lost King is a drama that will cause more drama. It’s not in the same league as Almodovar’s parallel mothers, but both projects prove the same truth. There is nothing dry in the bones.
The Lost King receives its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 and is released in the UK on October 7.