Review – The Lost King

Carly Hilts reviews Pathé’s new film about the rediscovery of Richard III’s remains.

The events surrounding the search for Richard III’s grave and its ultimate rediscovery beneath a Leicester car park represent one of those narratives that, if presented to you as fiction, you would dismiss as going too far. They certainly kept the CA editorial team busy (not least when the king’s skeleton was identified just as issue 272 was about to go to press), and so I was very interested to watch The Lost King, a new big-screen depiction of the investigation.

Left Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley.
Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley. Photo: Pathé UK

The film reunites co-writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and director Stephen Frears, the team behind 2013’s Philomena. That too was a tragicomic story about the hunt for a long-lost person based on real events, and The Lost King takes a similar tone to its predecessor, variously witty, sentimental, serious, and whimsical. In this new film, though, the missing person is Richard III, and the woman searching for him is Philippa Langley (played by Sally Hawkins), an amateur historian keen to rediscover his resting place and rehabilitate his reputation.

Hawkins’ quietly dogged and vulnerable characterisation is compelling, and the film’s exploration of more personal challenges – Langley’s strained relationship with her husband (played by Steve Coogan), her struggles with ME, her frustration with being passed over at work – are particularly effective. Meanwhile, dream-like apparitions of Richard III himself (played by Harry Lloyd, pictured BELOW wearing armour based on pieces from the Wallace Collection where a tie-in exhibition is running until 8 January 2023; see CA 392) add dramatic flair, as does the insistently intense score that accompanies some of the excavation scenes. It is when we move into the archaeological arena, though, that matters become more difficult. The film presents a simple underdog story about one trailblazing woman’s fight for recognition against a male-dominated establishment who ‘never miss a chance to put [Langley] in [her] place’. Sneering university bureaucrats try to grab the glory for themselves, and while the archaeologists are more genially dismissive, they are only tempted to take part in the dig due to financial desperation (which their real-life counterparts insist was invented), and are not afraid to throw their academic weight about when Langley questions them. Above all, in order to highight Langley’s contribution, the film underplays or completely omits the work of the many female academics who played a key role in the project. Jo Appleby does appear in some scenes, but others like Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan, and Lin Foxhall are absent.

Photo: Pathé UK

Films are not documentaries, and this reviewer doesn’t expect them to be – but female stories are often undertold in archaeology, and it is ironic to see this happening in a film purporting to redress the balance by championing Langley. I felt similar frustration when watching The Dig, last year’s dramatisation of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation (see CA 373 and 374): there, the very experienced archaeologist Peggy Piggott was reduced to a clumsy ingénue for the sake of an invented romantic subplot, while Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack (who captured the excavation on film) were deleted to make way for Piggott’s fictional love interest.

While historical figures should not be denied their due, though, it is all the more problematic when dramatic retellings impact on the professional reputations of people who are very much still living, and still working – male members of the project team have also expressed concern about their portrayal in The Lost King, and one is reportedly considering legal action. As with The Dig, it is great to see more archaeological stories being brought to a mainstream audience – but it is a shame to see this version of events doing just what Philippa Langley accuses Shakespeare and Tudor propagandists of doing to Richard III: inventing villains for dramatic effect.