As you’ll know if you’ve seen the Channel 4 documentary, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, Philippa Langley, in 2011, was a wannabe screenwriter, based in Edinburgh, suffering from chronic ME. Her relationship with her husband, John, was under strain; she was struggling to take care of her two children. What changed everything was her burgeoning interest, nay obsession, with Richard III.
The latter, Langley felt, was the victim of Tudor propagandists and blamed Shakespeare, in particular, for Richard’s rep as a hunch-backed nephew-killer. The least she could do was find the guy’s remains and with the help of fellow Ricardians, her own intuition and a bunch of scientists, that’s what she did. Langley - who by the way is a dead ringer for real-life activist Erin Brockovich - also dreamt of getting Richard a decent burial. She poured money, time and whatever energy she had into this mission and, after endless slights and setbacks, she got her way.
Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the team behind Philomena, have turned this material into a fairytale-ish crowd-pleaser, complete with a handsome and friendly ghost (played by Game of Thrones actor Harry Lloyd), who beguiles our heroine (Sally Hawkins) and makes her husband (Coogan) jealous.
The Lost King may be frothy, but it’s also quietly subversive, truly droll, and could and should earn Sally Hawkins a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars/Baftas.
It would be an understatement to say that Hawkins doesn’t go down the Brockovich route. Famous for her lack of vanity, the 46-year-old actress takes her willingness to look peculiar to new heights (she wears a pair of reading glasses almost as big as her face). To put it another way, if Lloyd is the film’s prince charming, Hawkins makes herself its indefatigable, sometimes heart-wrenching little frog.
One of the most impressive aspects of the script is the way it acknowledges Langley’s flaws. Her stance on Richard, initially, amounts to: he was a hottie, don’t treat him like a nottie. It’s only right at the end that she stops viewing his curved spine as a problem (though the fact that his ghost always appears to have a straight back may prove controversial).
Talking of which, some of the academics/scientists involved in the car park dig are unhappy with the movie. You can sort of see why. The archaeologists and DNA experts at Leicester University who dug up and identified Richard III’s remains are made to look grumpy and unsupportive. As for Lee Ingleby’s Richard Taylor (the University’s deputy registrar), he’s a ruthless backstabber. The real-life Taylor is probably a great deal nicer. Still, it’s a matter of record that Langley wasn’t invited to speak at a key press conference in 2013. The University’s top brass made a decision to sideline her. One of the morals of this story: share nicely.
The irony is that The Lost King, as well as boosting Langley’s profile (it’s definitely selling her as an inspirational woman), could damage her reputation, not least because it exaggerates her hippy-dippy qualities. In the film, Langley’s told by a genuinely supportive colleague that she shouldn’t talk about her “feelings” and “intuition”, because such language plays into stereotypes about irrational females. So many facts about Richard III are still disputed by historians. Thanks to this movie, Langley, now synonymous with the Ricardian movement, could find herself being attacked from all sides.
The Lost King is a drama that will cause more drama. It isn’t in the same league as Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, but both projects prove the same truth. There’s nothing dry about bones.
The Lost King receives its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 and is released in the UK on October 7