The Lost King is based on a true story – how a woman called Philippa Langley came to be the driving force behind the discovery of the remains of King Richard III… underneath a council car park in Leicester. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and directed by Stephen Frears (the team behind the excellent Philomena), the film relates how Langley (Sally Hawkins), an ‘ordinary woman’ living in Edinburgh, first becomes interested in the last of the Plantagenet kings, while watching a performance of Shakespeare’s eponymous play. The titular role is performed by a young actor (Harry Lloyd) and thereafter, Langley experiences visions of ‘Richard’, who seems to be waiting for her to do something.
Much to the bemusement of her ex-husband, John (Coogan), and her two young sons, Langley’s interest quickly develops into a full-blown obsession. She reads everything she can find about Richard, she joins a group of local enthusiasts and, eventually , she finds herself in Leicester and that fateful car park. After making her way a spot helpfully marked by a large letter R, she becomes convinced that she’s standing on Richard’s grave.
I know. If this hadn’t actually happened it would be risible. But it did happen, so get over it.
Convinced she’s right, Langley approaches archeologist Richard Buckley (Mark Addy) at Leicester University, and persuades him to help her to organise an excavation of the car park. But where are the funds going to come from?
The film has stirred up some controversy by suggesting that, although Langley was undoubtedly the prime mover behind the campaign to find Richard – she actually raised most of the money via crowdfunding – she was latterly sidelined by Leicester University, who monopolised the subsequent discovery and dismissed her as an ‘amateur’. One man in particular, Richard Taylor (played here by Lee Ingleby), comes across as especially unpleasant and the real Taylor, former Vice Chancellor of the university, is currently threatening legal action. Surely it would have been kinder at least to give the character a different name? (This would also have avoided having yet another Richard in the story.)
Whatever the truth of the case, this is a fascinating story about self-belief and perseverance. I like the fact that Langley is not deified here, but presented as a far from perfect individual, selfishly devoting everything to her obsession, no matter what the cost to herself or her family. And I like the device of having Richard as part of the ongoing adventure, offering a little more depth to the proceedings.
While the whereabouts of a long-dead body is arguably low-stakes, recent events have shown how pageantry, pomp and circumstance really seem to matter to huge swathes of the population, and it’s always a delight to see Edinburgh (my home city) depicted onscreen in all its glory – even when, in certain scenes, it’s pretending to be Leicester!