Movie Review: The Lost King

One-liner: a solid performance, promising story and intriguing portrait is diluted by scattershot and stuffy storytelling.

The Lost King is based on a true story, which may come as some surprise if the actual news still hasn’t reached you yet. The biographical comedy drama (mystery) centres on amateur historian, Philippa Langley, who spearheads efforts to find King Richard III’s remains and reclaim his reputation. Starring Sally Hawkins as Langley, The Lost King explores King Richard III’s history and legacy by way of a retrospective hunt for his long lost grave.

This is another outing for Philomena writer-director team, Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan who teams up with co-writers Michael Jones and Philippa Langley. While Coogan had a co-lead role opposite Dame Judi Dench in a well-received mystery comedy drama, he takes more of a back seat role in The Lost King as Philippa’s husband, John. Having worked with journalist Martin Sixsmith to bring an authenticity to Philomena’s biographical origins, the screenwriter approaches The Lost King with a similar appetite.

Stephen Frears is best known for The Queen, having directed the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep. An experienced director, he’s helmed exuberant comedies like Florence Foster Jenkins and more serious dramas like The Program, primarily concerned with history and real-life characters. This makes Frears perfectly poised to tackle The Lost King, giving Sally Hawkins a chance to work with the acclaimed director.

Hawkins has an innate complexity, owing to the actor’s reluctance to be a star. This wallflower tendency has been reflected throughout her career after a breakthrough performance in Happy-Go-Lucky. A shy person, her casting in the role of real-life amateur historian Philippa Langley rings true, as she spreads her wings to lead a university-funded project in Leicester. The Lost King leans on Hawkins, who doesn’t disappoint with her trademark verve.

While the writer, director, actor and subject heads make The Lost King seem like a surefire hit, The Lost King is a bit scattered in its noble pursuits. Trying to dress up a rather simple plot with a tentative character portrait, it loses focus and struggles to draw empathy or create suspense. While the news story is over a decade old, the simmering mystery still holds weight as the quiet film grapples with what you could describe as an obsessive academic adventure.

To spice things up, The Lost King slips into Langley’s inner world, as the psychological drama explores her challenges of living with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome) and her encounters with a figment of Richard III, played by Harry Lloyd. Seesawing amid the politics of a university, the fanaticism of a society and the demands of home and work, The Lost King sways between fact, feeling and fiction.

the lost king film

“Your kingdom for a horse?”

It seems that Langley’s quest probably mirrors efforts to excavate this niche feature film, which may have been further constrained by the pandemic. Its absurdist and light humour are appreciated as screenwriter and actor, Steve Coogan aims for a similar tone to Philomena. A soliloquy of sorts that plays like an adaptation of an essay, there’s a great deal of conjecture and navel-gazing as The Lost King wrestles between gut instinct and cerebral debate.

This biographical comedy drama does get a bit stuffy at times in spite of its quality ingredients. Trying to keep one foot on the ground for the sake of authenticity, the earnest character portrait keeps its white gloves on in dealing with the history of the event and characters. There are pokes here and there but there’s a safe distance to the behind-the-scenes intimacy of this story. This is compounded by its struggle to break out of its polite small town feel, unable to translate the full gravity of Langley’s undertaking on a global stage.

While The Lost King’s undermined by its safe, scattered and stuffy adaptation, it’s equally compelled by the calibre of its filmmakers and star. The real refresh on offer is a gentle, subtle, slower, thought-provoking and cerebral take on a comedy drama that attempts to bring 500 years of history to life in the post-truth age where information is in a constant state of flux. The Lost King’s a noble effort with some clever and timely parallels. While it does test one’s patience at times, it ultimately has enough complexity to entertain and power home.

The bottom line: Intriguing

splingometer 6