The Lost King: real people and events lost in identity politics stereotypes

Stephen Frears, “The Lost King” (2022)

A breezy and light film, “The Lost King” depends very largely on its lead actor Sally Hawkins’s energetic and impassioned performance as amateur historian Philippa Langley, who led the archaeological search that found and exhumed the remains of 15th-century English king Richard III in a council car park in Leicester, in the United Kingdom. Indeed the film itself is based on the book “The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III” which Langley herself co-wrote, so most of the account leading up to the discovery of the king’s remains is told from Langley’s point of view. Perhaps not surprisingly the film has attracted controversy, not least because a number of characters, based on real people, are portrayed as stereotypical villains and the people behind them have threatened to sue the film’s producers.

Playing rather loosely with actual facts, the film celebrates the determination and resilience of a woman who has been unfairly treated and discriminated against by society because of her disability. Langley is passed over for promotion by her employer despite years of loyalty because she has “issues” relating to having chronic fatigue syndrome. Later she watches a stage performance of the Shakespearean play “Richard III” with her son. Identifying rather closely with the hunchbacked Richard III, Langley becomes obsessed with finding all she can about the king. This obsession leads her to joining the Richard III Society in Edinburgh. Langley starts seeing apparitions of the king (Harry Lloyd) while researching his life. Her investigations lead her to a car park in Leicester where she has the odd feeling that this is where the king is buried. Langley’s obsession leads to her dismissal from work and she is compelled to ask her ex-husband (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script) to move back home to help look after their two sons.

Langley contacts University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley (Mark Addy) for assistance and help with raising the money to undertake an excavation of the car park. Initially Buckley is disinclined to help but when the university cuts funding for his projects, he agrees to help. Langley tries to get funding from the Leicester City but eventually reaches out to her fellow Richard III Society members who organise a crowdfunding project. Donations pour in from around the world, enough to secure funding for the digging of three archaeological trenches. Sure enough, the king’s remains are found but Langley discovers her problems are just beginning: the University of Leicester, hitherto disinterested in her quest, now rehires Buckley and tries to claim credit for leading the project, and a university bureaucrat (Lee Ingleby) denies Langley’s request that the king be reburied with a royal coat of arms.

Like some other films of hers that I have seen (“Made in Dagenham” and “The Shape of Water”), Hawkins plays the underdog with a fair few flaws, psychological as well as physical, very well. Langley’s obsession with Richard III derives from her close identification with him and her belief that, like herself, he has been devalued and treated unfairly. Her obsession and research give her a purpose for living, after everything else in her life has failed her. The extreme nature of her obsession is externalised in the apparition of the king with whom Langley converses and works out her fears and problems. At the moment of her triumph, when she should be recognised as having led the project to find and exhume the king’s remains, other people try to claim that triumph and push her aside again. At this point in the film though, the plot becomes rushed and we only really learn what glory Langley finally salvages in the end credits.

For all its earnestness in humanising a Shakespearean villain and giving voice to those ordinary people who achieve extraordinary things in spite of physical and psychological handicaps, “The Lost King” falls prey to a stereotyped plot pitting bureaucracy against ordinary people, and men of influence and status against a woman with no apparent academic qualifications and experience in mediaeval history and archaeology – in short, creating conflict where none exists in order to attract an audience. For some odd reason, the research that Langley does and the sacrifices she makes are passed over in favour of her disability, sex, emotions and intuition. At her first meeting with Buckley and his assistant, Langley brings a cake she has baked and then nearly faints: if this is not insulting to the real Langley as a woman, I don’t know what is. As with so many British films about British life, whether contemporary or set in the recent past, identity politics has to raise its ugly head and turn the individuals portrayed in these films as one-dimensional heroes or villains because of their backgrounds which they have no control over. The result is a work that really does not do Langley or her life’s work proper justice.