Except for Queen Elizabeth II, whose reign was documented in real time with the advent of audiovisual technologies, the legacies of most other British monarchs were preserved by third parties in writing. The perceptions of others, sometimes even their adversaries, shaped their image. Victors, as we know, mold the narrative for their benefit.
In the texts published following his death (including Shakespeare’s play), King Richard III, the ruler at the center of director Stephen Frears and screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s new inspirational dramedy — premiering at the Toronto Film Festival — was portrayed as a monstrous hunchback who murdered his nephews. A 15th century usurper with no legitimate claim to the throne, according to the Tudors, he was dragged through the proverbial mud of history
But not long ago, the nearly 600 years of libel were challenged by a woman who became infatuated with cleansing his name. To chronicle her difficult odyssey with “The Lost King,” the creative trio of Frears, Coogan and Pope followed the formula they established with “Philomena,” another based-on-a-true-story drama starring Dame Judi Dench. With just enough humor and heart, they cut through the solemnity of a bureaucratic ordeal.
The humble heroine in this enjoyable portrait of tirelessness is Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), a dissatisfied office worker and mother often deemed peculiar by those around her. But one night her uneventful life is upended by a local production of “Richard III.” Captivated by the lead performance, she becomes disgusted with the scandalous accusations made against the king in this fiction that many take as fact.
Feeling herself misunderstood by the world, Philippa nurtures a kinship with the historical figure that sends her into a frenzy of curiosity. As her ex-husband John (Coogan) helps take care of their two children, she spends days researching the king’s history and even joins a club of his devotees. Through it all, Richard III himself accompanies her — literally.
Early on, the filmmakers introduce passages in which Philippa speaks directly to a vision of the king played by Harry Lloyd, who also plays the theater actor Philippa watched onstage. Her idea of him is based on this thespian and not precisely on the not-so-flattering “official” paintings of him found in books. Lloyd speaks only occasionally, but his indelible facial expressions influence how Hawkins’ Philippa reacts. She wants to find his remains.
Though far from original, this narrative device goes along with the magical realist and cheeky tone that characterize Coogan and Pope’s storytelling. Enter Alexandre Desplat’s cheerfully enigmatic score, which heightens the grounded sense of wonder of the film. Visually, however, there’s no distinction between reality and Philippa’s imagination, making for an interesting seamlessness in the way the two modes intertwine.
What prevents this life-affirming account from turning boringly saccharine is the caliber of humanity that Hawkins lends Philippa. There’s no doubt in one’s mind that she is consumed to the core with amending the transgressions she believes where committed against Richard, which in turn have also been committed against her. Her projection brims with a loving desperation that commands us to feel for her. Her gravitas tempers the sweetness.
After enough digging, she becomes resolute that Richard III’s remains are buried under what is now a parking lot. And while it’s her diligent relentlessness that has piqued the interest of legitimate researchers, at every turn, they (all men) try to discredit her for being an everyday woman and not an academic. At one point, a fellow woman, in a position of power, recommends Philippa stop talking about her feelings when trying to convince men in suits to support her venture. The microaggressions continue even after she succeeds.
But the closer she gets to her objective, the more Philippa loses the meek demeanor and asserts her place in the eyes of those who wish to utilize her findings before pushing her aside. Hawkins, an actress whose physicality makes her perfect to portray the more passive Philippa, roars in still elegant fashion when the character requires a more aggressive approach. A late scene where she confronts one of her bullies showcases Hawkins’ ability for restrained fury.
Not interested in questioning the British obsession with the royals as part of their cultural identity, “The Lost King” heads swiftly into the winsome direction one expects with an always-charming Coogan playing the only man who supports Philippa blindly. Yet, near the finish line, the screenplay surprises by raising questions about who gets credit for new discoveries and who gets relegated to obscurity, giving the tale Philippa and Richard III a slightly more compelling, less neatly wrapped resolution via female empowerment.
Both Philippa and Philomena exemplify that when institutions fail to enact justice, of any sort, it’s often an industrious individual’s determined quest to accomplish a mission tied to their personal experience that actually changes the course of history. And even if giving proper burial to a king and debunking the perpetuated myths about him isn’t precisely an achievement that benefits many, “The Lost King” makes an example out of Philippa as someone who didn’t let others define what or who she could become through sheer will.
“The Lost King” will be released in the U.S. by IFC Films.