TIFF Review: ‘The Lost King’ Is A Modest But Thoroughly Captivating Tale

William Shakespeare rather definitively defined Richard the Third as a deformed, conniving, duplicitous and altogether unsavory monarch in his 1485 play, and the man’s image as such has persisted ever since.

But that all changed nearly a decade ago when an obscure amateur historian sniffed around and ultimately uncovered the burial site beneath a downtown Leicester parking lot, a story that has now been beguilingly recounted in The Lost King. It’s a modest but thoroughly captivating tale that has the look and feel of so many good British films of 25 or 30 years ago, a quality that can no doubt be significantly attributed to that reliable all-rounder Stephen Frears at the helm.

Delightfully written by costar Steve Coogan and the prolific television writer Jeff Pope, this is a story somewhat in the vein of Preston Sturges’ little-man-makes-good human comedies, in which an unlikely nobody suddenly becomes something akin to a folk hero. In this case, it’s a woman who not only defies conventional wisdom, but upsets academic norms by behaving rather more like an intuitive detective than a doctrinaire historian. It’s a wonderful script tailor made for Sally Hawkins, who is, unsurprisingly, smashing as an amateur of few means who defiantly soldiers on until she quite literally gets to the bottom of things.

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Philippa Langley’s position in life could scarcely be seem promising; although she and her husband John (a wonderfully self-deprecating Coogan) are no longer together, as it were, they’re still living in exceptionally close quarters under the same Edinburgh roof with a tiny tot, the responsibility for whom largely falls to John, as they have no financial options. But he’s mostly amiable about the domestic conditions, enough so to allow the fast-metabolism Philippa to hang out with her girlfriends and probe more deeply into the long-buried mysteries surrounding the death and literal cover-up of the long-maligned monarch.

Part of what keeps The Lost King rattling along at such an engaging clip is the energetic but mostly friendly disputatiousness among all the parties; most everyone here, from Philippa’s pals to the various competing academics, are struggling through life but nonetheless engaged with it, no one moreso than Philippa. By academic standards, she’s a rank amateur and not fit to step in the ring with properly educated scholars. Technically, she suffers from chronic fatigue, although to watch her you’d scarcely notice it, probably because Hawkins is such a live-wire performer no matter what she does.

All the same, Philippa chugs ahead. We do see a bit of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third in a local production and are reminded that the bard wrote his spellbinding work about 100 years after King Richard died. Intrigued by the whole story, Philippa digs more deeply and moves to an “innocent until proven guilty” attitude towards her subject. This being the modern era, she is able to engage with a Richard III “family” online, which accelerates her immersion into an obsession.

And so she rattles relentlessly ahead on a path that lands her in that car park under which it is now suggested that the much-maligned sovereign might well be buried. At this crucial stage, she meets with stiff opposition from possessive local academics, who automatically think they know better just as competition from an outsider threatens their monopoly on all matters Richard.

This attitude toward our heroine is both upsetting and entirely believable but nonetheless can’t stop the momentum, which culminates in the most unlikely location of a non-descript parking lot beneath which an infamous royal looks to have lain peacefully as pedestrians, automobiles and lorries have unknowingly traversed the pavement just a few feet from his remains. It’s a highly unlikely but nonetheless poignant  climax.

One gets the sense that the local academics elbowed Philippa out of the way as much as they could, but she has the last laugh in that a movie has been made with her at the center of it all, deservedly or not. It’s a very fine entertainment, not terribly refined but confident and jolly in its telling of a wildly unlikely tale. Hawkins is as winning as she’s ever been; she grabs you by the hand and pulls you through her entirely engaging ups and downs. It’s a reminder of the kind of eccentric and off-beat British films that used to be expected commodities but have become relative rarieties, at least in cinemas. True or something to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s something to be relished.

Coogan etches a lovely sketched-in portrait of an amiable good-for-nothing who obligingly supports his wife in whatever ways he can while she pursues a seemingly futile quest to prove her conviction that King Richard is not only interred nearby in Leicester but does not deserve the calumny with which he has been cloaked through the intervening centuries.

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