Steve Coogan and Stephen Frears's latest offering lacks the wit and spark to bring an often mundane true story to exciting life
The last time that Stephen Frears, Jeff Pope, and Steve Coogan teamed up to tell a true story it was for Philomena, a deservedly world-conquering and award-winning drama that gave Judi Dench one of her best roles in the last couple of decades. What a disappointment, then, that the trio’s reunion, nine years later, should result in The Lost King, a generic and clangingly twee Brit dramedy that never finds a particularly interesting way to tell a frankly rather dull-on-paper true story.
It’s a story that always feels like it’d be better suited to a documentary – that of the efforts of amateur historian Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) to find the long-lost remains of the maligned King Richard III and attempt to redress the Tudor- and Shakespeare-created history that made him a villain. The actual discovery, during the dig in Leicester that Philippa had commissioned back in 2012, was a brilliant piece of historiography, but there simply isn’t almost two hours of material in it to sustain a drama like this.
Pope and Coogan’s script traces Philippa’s curiosity about/obsession with Richard back to her own struggles with chronic fatigue; she knows first-hand what it’s like to be dismissed due to a disability, conclusions drawn about you when you aren’t around to defend yourself. Leaving her job, she tracks down some like-minded history buffs and starts a campaign to find Richard’s remains.
Though Hawkins gives a solid performance, the writing for Philippa is very by-the-numbers, socially awkward in the same vein as a million other Brit-com protagonists. She gets the kind of dialogue that is meant to be irritating to other characters but endearing to us, but that only works occasionally – her company can actually be quite annoying. Similarly vexing is the choice to have Richard himself appear to Philippa as a sort of phantom/moral compass (played by Harry Lloyd), which always feels gimmicky and doesn’t really allow Lloyd to do anything, with Richard often left mute for entire scenes.
Aside from Hawkins, performances are simply perfunctory – to be fair, it is hard to liven up a script that is obsessed with relitigating the morality and legitimacy of a 15th century monarch to the point of basically sanctifying Richard, swinging the biased historical needle too far in the other direction. Even Coogan’s appearances as Philippa’s husband are a bit forgettable, though he and Hawkins do share a nice, easy chemistry, and the non-judgmental examination of the pair’s unorthodox dynamic (divorced and seeing other people but living together for the kids) is the best thing on offer here.
It also feels noteworthy to mention that, for a story about history being misrepresented, The Lost King takes a fair few liberties with its own story. To provide an antagonist in the latter half, when the plans for the dig really start coming together, the film turns Leicester University into a bunch of sneering villains, an apparent falsehood that has already spurred one of the real-life figures into threatening legal action. Truth be told, though, The Lost King is not a film worth getting worked up over.
The Lost King is released in UK cinemas on October 7.Where to watch