The Lost King

The Lost King is a very different kind of underdog story. Based on actual events, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley, a British mom co-parenting her two sons with ex-husband John (Steve Coogan). She’s very good at putting on a brave face, making it seem like everything is okay when it isn’t. That includes pretending not to be bothered by John’s recent engagement to his girlfriend. Philippa attends a theater production of Shakespeare’s Richard III one night. The actor onstage makes eye contact with her. That, combined with the power of the show, causes her to become obsessed with the king.

Before long, she’s reading everything she can on Richard, as well as joining a society of like-minded individuals who share information and speculation as to where the long-missing ruler’s body might be. As embodied by that actor, Richard (Harry Lloyd) often appears to her, as if encouraging her interest not only in finding him, but also in defending his tarnished reputation. Philippa eventually devises a theory that his body is beneath a carpark. She convinces an archeologist, Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), to help her go through the proper channels to receive permission to dig the lot up.

The true story of The Lost King is quite fascinating, although the second and third acts are where the film really kicks into gear. The first act, on the other hand, is a bit slow to get going. The reason why Philippa becomes so besotted with Richard is never made fully clear. She just suddenly devotes every waking minute to her new preoccupation. We know her marriage has ended and she hates her job, so presumably the research is something she can feel good about. Her obsession could have been with anything, though. The movie needs to go a couple steps further in helping us understand why this historical figure enchants her.

Once you convince yourself to take her motivation at face value – and you will, thanks to how good Hawkins is in the role - the plot picks up steam, especially if you didn’t know about any of this beforehand. The Lost King works as a mystery, with Philippa assembling various clues to formulate her hypothesis. If she’s right, it’s a breakthrough. If not, she’s got one more failure under her belt. Looking for Richard underneath a parking lot adds suspense, because it seems like such an unlikely possibility. The film additionally gets into the politics of these historical digs. Buckley technically works for Philippa, yet is the one with all the knowledge, making him resistant to a few of her ideas. And the university he works for is eager to take credit if she’s right, and equally ready to distance itself from her if she’s wrong.

Those factors combine to create some edge-of-your-seat drama, along with a few instances of character-based comedy as this outsider takes on the establishment of “experts.” Sally Hawkins is what glues everything together. Even if the screenplay isn’t always crystal clear about the reason for her preoccupation, the actress absolutely convinces us that it means the world to Philippa. Here’s a woman who has seemingly been dismissed for much of her adult life. Now she has what she believes is a solid thesis that she intends to pursue. That dogged quality is brought fully to life by Hawkins.

Addy and Coogan provide effective supporting performances, and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (The Grifters, The Queen) expertly builds excitement once backhoes start digging through the cement in that lot. The Lost King depicts what actually happened, but maintains a focus on what the quest means to Philippa Langley. A desire to see her vindicated against all odds is sufficient to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

out of four

The Lost King is rated R for some strong language and brief suggestive references. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.