What is truth? How much of it hinges on who tells it? In the dramedy The Lost King, more recent events and the distant past are brought together in an attempt to grapple with these questions. This centers on the uncovering of the remains of King Richard III, a real discovery that challenged the prevailing historical understanding about who he was and how he had died.
This find came, in part, because of the dogged work of amateur historian Phillippa Langley. Played by a typically splendid Sally Hawkins, she must take on the establishment of academia itself in order to get to the real truth.
At least, as we are informed by the opening credits, that is her story. As it turns out, there are those who have quite a different recollection of events. In response to the film, which premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened in the UK in October, archaeologists and academics alike have challenged the way it portrays many of the key events. The dispute centers on whether Langley was ever given proper credit for her contributions and whether this was due to bigwigs at the University of Leicester squeezing her out at the end. It's a complicated situation that would make for a compelling work of documentary filmmaking. As a dramatization, it feels completely distant. Regardless of where you fall on what is the truth, the movie's greatest pitfall is that it paints with the broadest of strokes. It takes what was a significant discovery and makes it into something far too contrived to leave the desired impact.
With Hawkins doing all she can to uncover emotional layers of her own in a story that is generally lacking them, one could almost overlook the many contrivances that begin to pile up. The problem is not whether we can give ourselves over to Langley's truth for just under two hours, but whether the engagement to be found in doing so is worth it. The real discovery was a momentous one, but the maudlin path the film takes to get there ensures it all rings hollow.
Save for the complicated relationship that Langley has with her ex-husband John (Steve Coogan, who is also the film's co-writer), every other character is entirely superficial. Most notable among them is King Richard III himself, who becomes a player of sorts in the story. This begins when Langley goes to a performance of William Shakespeare's Richard III and is disheartened by how he is demonized over his disability. She feels a kinship with the man as she herself has a chronic illness that many dismiss. After the strong reaction she has to the performance, an apparition of King Richard III begins to follow her around on her journey.
Played by Harry Lloyd, Richard just hangs around. Much like the film itself, he is neither whimsical enough to be funny nor wise enough to bring an emotional weight. His role is perhaps meant to be an extension of how the real-life Langley has said that she felt some sort of connection to the monarch when first walking over his grave. What is rather odd is just how little he says other than to occasionally give a wink to the audience. He just ends up feeling tacked on and underutilized, conveying very little for how central he is.
The sole thing holding The Lost King together is Hawkins. Without her to helm the story, the film would feel even more directionless and drab than it already is. She captures the resolve of the character in a way that makes it difficult to not feel some sort of connection to the story itself. Even as it is a rather plainly shot film that never seems clear about the tone it is trying to strike, Hawkins pushes onward. That the film crumbles beneath her feet with every step she takes makes it a misfire when it should have been a marvel. ♦THE LOST KING