Bizarre, grudge-settling comedy-drama that celebrates amateurism and hates experts
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Sally Hawkins (Philippa Langley), Steve Coogan (John Langley), Harry Lloyd (Richard III), Mark Addy (Richard Buckley), Lee Ingleby (Richard Taylor), James Fleet (John Ashdown-Hill), Bruce Fummey (Hamish), Amanda Abbington (Shelia Lock)
In 2012 the world’s media descended on Leicester after the body of King Richard III was discovered in priory turned car park. Richard III had long had passionate supporters – Ricardians – who rejected the idea that the man Shakespeare turned into Britain’s most hated monarch was anything of the sort. It was one of those fans, Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins), who researched for 20 years to find evidence for where he was buried and became the public face of the search through ratings-winning television documentaries and writing a best-selling book.
All of this is rejigged in a silly, sentimental, bizarre film that repositions Langley as an inspired amateur butting heads with the self-promoting professionals of Leicester University. I suppose there is something ironic in a film which insists someone had their reputation sullied in the name of drama, itself sullies peoples names in the name of drama. (Richard Taylor, the deputy registrar of Leicester, here portrayed as a sexist, elitest self-promoter who mocks the disabled, has openly declared his intention to sue). The Lost King wants to be an affectionate Ealingesque comedy of the triumph of the little guy. It’s actually got an uncomfortable feeling of grudges being settled and a stench of Brexity anti-intellectualism.
Fascinatingly the anti-intellectualism even extends to Langley herself. Remember that 20 years of research? All deleted in this film. Here Langley is a working mum, suffering from ME (the film draws vague parallels between this and Richard’s scoliosis) who one day stumbles into a performance of Richard III and basically falls in love with the dead king. She pops down to a second-hand bookshop, buys eight books on Richard and in a few months is digging up the car park. It’s as if the idea she spent time in archives, triple checking sources, studying maps etc. would somehow have been “cheating” – that we could only root for her if she was an amateur, “one of us” who makes her (always correct) decisions purely on gut instinct.
But it fits with a film that portrays Leicester University as a sort of scheming club of middle-managers and moustachio-curling villains. No one from the university can so much as draw breath without disparaging “that woman” as an obsessive weirdo. They batter everyone with their expertise, arrogantly dismiss any ideas they don’t have themselves and stand around growling so Langley can puncture their pretention with her common-sense wisdom. Case in point: she suggests they overlay a modern map of Leicester over a medieval map to check locations. First they object, then look at her like she’s split the atom. Of course, they are right to object: medieval maps are hand-drawn approximations often more based on aesthetics than accuracy. But that doesn’t matter to the film, which of course immediately shows the two maps lining up in microscopic detail. If only 500 years’ worth of scholars could have thought of that, eh?
Embodied by Lee Ingleby’s Richard Taylor as a number-crunching obstructive bureaucrat who does everything he can to steal the credit (honestly, if you are going to take this kind of pop at a regular person at least change his name), Leicester University are unilaterally baddies. All this score-settling seems to have come from Langley’s resentment at not being invited to speak at a couple of press conferences. No matter that TV documentaries and books made her name synonymous with Richard III to anyone who really cares (even the film can’t pretend it’s telling “an untold true story”). This is a film with an axe to grind – so much so that the eventual discovery of Richard becomes secondary to this mud-slinging as Langley rebukes Taylor publicly (inevitably shaming him into silence) for equating disability with wickedness and cutting her out of meetings.
What’s particularly odd about The Lost King is that the film ends up painting Langley as exactly the kind of un-credible crank its villains (villainously) see her as. Having removed all her rigorous research, it replaces it with Having A Feeling. This is communicated visually with Langley communing regularly with a vision of Richard III, personified by the actor from the play she saw. Langley chats to this vision with the breathless excitement of a giddy teenager, and he helps her discover reams of facts, not least a bizarre moment of ecstasy when she spots an “R” in the car park and just knows Richard is under there.
Harry Lloyd is all adrift in this bizarre part and its main impact is to raise unfortunate giggles and make Langley look exactly like the sort of person you wouldn’t invest tens of thousands of pounds in. Mind you, Langley here is way more competent than any other Ricardian society member, all of whom are portrayed as cranks and pub bores, talking as if they only discovered famous primary sources this week, and utterly unable to even tie their own shoelaces until Langley sails in and discovers the king’s body in about ten minutes.
Hawkins plays a part firmly in her wheel-house, as an eccentric but determined woman in love with a ghost, while co-scriptwriter Steve Coogan generously writes himself a “stop reading Holinshed and look after the kids” role as her supportive ex-husband. Langley, like other characters, bends and changes according to the needs of the scene but is always the hero. When the script needs her to be a determined leader, she won’t take no for an answer. When it needs her to be oppressed by those nasty Leicester professionals, she won’t say boo to a goose. (Similarly, Mark Addy’s archaeologist yo-yos between dismissive of Langley to affectionately supportive almost scene-to-scene.)
The Lost King wants to be a triumphal little-guy film, but actually it has an unpleasant air to it. It feels like a massive grudge being publicly settled. It belittles and ignores expertise, patience and research in favour of gut instinct and amateurism. It bizarrely paints its lead character as a mixture of oddball weirdo, genius and saintly crusader. It’s also neither dramatic nor funny (except accidentally). It’s a bad film.