The Lost King review: the search for King Richard III finds something else instead

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Sally Hawkins excels in The Lost King, a film that has its ups and downs, but also a quiet importance to it.

Right then. The Lost King – the reunion of the creative team behind the Oscar-nominated Philomena – has arrived in cinemas with controversy following it. Bottom line: if I was in the marketing department at Leicester University, I’d be quietly directing any potential students towards a showing of something like Ticket To Paradise instead. Much safer ground.

The brass tacks of the film are that Sally Hawkins plays Phillipa Langley, a woman struggling with life – coming to that – who fixates on the search for King Richard III’s remains. It’s no secret to say she starts a crusade that ended up making global news, and a right mess of a car park.

The film version of the story – based on the book by Langley and Michael Jones – has been adapted by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, and follows dual paths. The big story, if you like, is the hunt for the King’s final resting place. The smaller, more interesting part of the film turns out to be a character study about a woman struggling with chronic pain.

The first bit first then. There are a few things that don’t quite work as well as Pope and Coogan might have thought they would. For a start, Coogan – playing Langley’s ex-husband – serves up pasta for dinner and slops water into the bowl. Not a fan. Secondly, and more importantly, Langley’s quest sees her accompanied by visions of a King Richard III, who she talks to as she continues to make progress. It’s a storytelling conceit that requires a bit of a leap from the audience, and I couldn’t quite make it. It felt neither light enough to entertain or serious enough to be some kind of mental guidance. Instead, it became a bit Greek chorus-y, just with one bloke in King Richard cosplay.

It’s not the only unrealistic thing here. At one stage, we see footage of a train appearing to run on time, and Langley managing to easily get a seat. In another sequence, she only has 298 junk emails on her computer. Madness.

Still, the quest remains pretty endearing, just resolutely unsurprising. Mark Addy is welcome as the Not Bastard face of Leicester University, and there’s room in the ensemble for some Bastard Faces of Leicester University to offset him.

However, the other side of the film I thought was terrific. If you find it boring to hear someone else say that Sally Hawkins is an outstanding actor, then prepare to be bored: Sally Hawkins is an outstanding actor. Here, in the midst of a muddled film, she’s been afforded an outstanding role, and a director – Stephen Frears – who gives her the space to maximise it.

It’s not just that we’re getting a film with a fortysomething female lead to root for, it’s the small subtleties, that also come across in the script. There’s a tiny moment that gets to the day-to-day of living with chronic pain – and it’s something the film doesn’t shy away from, but neither does it showboat – where Langley mutters to her ex-husband “because you can”. The reason? He’s able to get up and take their sons out for a bite to eat. She can’t for a couple of reasons, but the risk of pain flaring up feels like one of them.

Hawkins also is given some cannon fodder antagonists to push against, and does. The points may not always be subtle, but when she declares “they never miss a chance to put me in my place”, I desperately wanted her to put them in theirs instead. I loved watching her.

The film also has a gorgeous overhead projector in it as well incidentally, and more movies should do.

It’s two films this. One, a bit of a jaunty caper with an oddball off on a seemingly insane quest. The other, a woman following her heart, and making the most of the cards she’s been dealt. The former’s okay, the latter’s great, the resultant whole will do nicely.

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