Rehabilitating Richard III in 'The Lost King'

“The Lost King” - ★ ★ ★

Richard III didn't need a horse for his kingdom. He just needed Philippa Langley.

Langley, a single mother and amateur historian living in Edinburgh, Scotland, became increasingly obsessed with the late English monarch, long portrayed as one of the great villains of history. In the supposedly hunchbacked king who was said to have killed his nephews, Langley and others suspected a centurieslong smear campaign.

The long-held consensus on Richard III had been shaped by the Tudors, who killed Richard and assumed the throne. It's a narrative, of course, forever since solidified by Shakespeare's great play. For Richard and his sympathizers, it's been not just a winter of discontent but some 500 years. “Every tale condemns me for a villain,” the king says in “Richard III.”

Except for “The Lost King.”

Stephen Frears' new film, which opens in theaters Friday, dramatizes the true tale of Langley's dogged pursuit to unearth the true story of Richard as well as his actual, long-lost remains - a journey that leads, remarkably, to a parking lot in Leicester.

It's the kind of comic, eminently British underdog story that Frears excels at. And with Sally Hawkins playing Langley as a woman undeterred by pompous academics and condescending naysayers, “The Lost King” makes for a charmingly droll tale of long-ago and not-so-long-ago reappraisal.

“The Lost King” - which could make a good double feature with Al Pacino's “Looking for Richard” - reteams much of the creative team behind Frears' Oscar-nominated 2013 film “Philomena.” It's penned by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and based on Langley's memoir. Coogan also plays Langley's estranged husband, who maintains a mostly supportive relationship with her while sharing custody of their sons.

Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) meets Richard III (Harry Lloyd) in "The Lost King." Courtesy of IFC Films

Despite it being a far more modest mystery than “North by Northwest” - playing out mostly at kitchen tables, bookstores and the pub meetings of the Richard III Society - Frears gives his modest film a few big-screen flourishes, including Saul Bass-like opening credits and a Bernard Herrmann-like score by Alexandre Desplat. There's an innocent man here, too. He just happens to be half a millennium old.

But mostly, Frears sensibly sticks to capturing every quicksilver gesture of the brilliant Hawkins. When we meet Hawkins' Langley, she's reached a middle-age ebb. Troubled by chronic fatigue syndrome, Langley is passed over at work. Her marriage has fallen apart. She's withdrawing from life. But after attending a performance of “Richard III,” she's captivated by the monarch and recognizes in him someone else who's been unfairly written off for their supposed disability. When she dives into researching Richard and eventually spearheads a dig in Leicester, Langley's crusade is a doubled one: to resurrect a marginalized monarch and to assert her own place in the world.

Along the way, Langley is visited by Richard III himself, in the form of the actor (Harry Lloyd) who played him in the production that inspired her in the first place. These are muted scenes as far as apparitions go. I can't help wondering if here might have been Coogan's chance to play a war general and trot out his “Gentlemen to bed” line from “The Trip.” But as it is, Coogan is nicely low-key in “The Lost King” and gets one of the film's best monologues, lamenting both the demonizing and sanctifying of historical figures, or anybody. “We're all in the middle,” he says.

“The Lost King” very contentedly resides in that middle with a protagonist who accomplishes something extraordinary despite being repeatedly told how ordinary she is. Frears, who has found humanity in royalty and nobility in nobodies, animates every scene with little comic touches of everyday life. Richard may be validated but there are bad guys, here, too. In the film's final third, University of Leicester officials descend to take the spotlight from Langley - a characterization the university has called unfair and inaccurate. The wheel goes round: If one villain leaves the stage, another must enter.

An IFC Films release. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief suggestive references. 109 minutes

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