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Dan Webster reviews "The Lost King"


Like many movies inspired by real events, Stephen Frears’ The Lost King flirts with the truth. But, really, we should all be used to that practice by now. Most movies, and some far more than others, alter actual history as a means of amping up what producers like to call “dramatic effect.”

So, give Frears—or, rather, Frears along with screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope—this much credit: At least they found a clever way to make their version of reality seem credible. To wit, they embraced the in-credible. But more on that in a minute.

The Lost King is based on the nonfiction book co-authored by Philippa Langley (and historian Michael K. Jones) titled The King's Grave: The Search for Richard III. The book tells the story of Langley’s quest to find the body of the 15th-century Plantagenet king—the last Plantagenet king, as it turns out.

Richard III, of course, is known to anyone with a high school diploma as one of the English monarchs made famous by Shakespeare. His demise came at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where—in Shakespeare’s play—he famously was said to have cried out, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” before being struck down. The men who struck the killing blows belonged to the army of the man who would take Richard’s place on the throne, Henry Tudor—later crowned as Henry VII.

After being buried in Leicester’s Greyfriars Church, Richard’s corpse was thought to have been later dug up and thrown into the nearby Soar River. In any event, the body was thought to have been lost to history—a history, by the way, popularized by Tudor apologists—Shakespeare among them—that portrayed Richard as a usurper, a murderer and all in all a bad man.

Langley felt otherwise. And based on that feeling, augmented by considerable research, she came to believe that Richard’s body could be found where the Greyfriars Church once stood. Demolished following Henry VIII’s 1538 order, known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Greyfriars in the early 2000s had been replaced by, of all things, a car park. And that is where Langley, while working to get support from a variety of sources, focused her attention.

In Frears’ film, Langley is played by Sally Hawkins, famous for having been Oscar-nominated both for 2013’s Blue Jasmine and 2017’s The Shape of Water. Hawkins portrays Langley as a woman facing a number of hardships: separated from her husband John (played by co-screenwriter Coogan), Hawkins’ character—like the real-life Langley—is portrayed as having a condition known as ME (for myalgic encephalomyelitis, which is more commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome).

Passed over for a work promotion, notably to a younger and blonder colleague, Hawkins’ disappointed Langley just happens to attend a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. And it is after this performance that The Lost King pursues what I referred to before as the incredible: an apparition in the form of the stage actor who portrayed the doomed king (played by Harry Lloyd) appears to her—his unspoken request: find his body and, in the process, resurrect his reputation.

Magical realism aside, aspects of the Coogan-Pope script, which otherwise sticks mostly to the facts, have attracted some controversy, especially the film’s insistence that the University of Leicester tried to take more credit for the project than it deserved. The university denies this charge. In interviews, though, Frears and Langley both have stood their ground.

Was Langley as important to the discovery as The Lost King makes out? Well, in 2015 she was honored with an MBE, so someone thought so. Was she, in real life, visited by the ghost of a long-dead king? Almost certainly not. But as a dramatic device, especially when employed by a skilled filmmaker working with a talented cast, it works here. This might not be how things actually occurred, but it does fit how we might wish that they had.

In any event, it hardly matters. Few among us consider the stories that moviemakers tell to be much more than entertaining fiction. And The Lost King, at the very least, fulfills that function.

Richard III would likely agree, even if Shakespeare might not.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for

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