‘The Lost King’ Review: A Royal Obsession

Sally Hawkins lights a fire under this droll dramedy about the search for the final resting place of Richard III.

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By Jeannette Catsoulis

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Sally Hawkins is a gift, to directors and audiences alike. When she smiles, it’s a face-splitting beam, so contagious that we would likely love her even if she were playing a murderer. And while her character in “The Lost King” is firmly tethered to a dead man, she didn’t kill him: She’s trying to dig him up.

As Philippa Langley, the single mother from Edinburgh who, in 2012, spearheaded the successful search for the grave of King Richard III, Hawkins lends wings to this otherwise languid dramatic comedy. In a transformative moment, Philippa attends a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and becomes mesmerized by the handsome actor playing the King (Harry Lloyd). This could easily have read as romantic attraction; but as Zac Nicholson’s camera zooms in on Hawkins’s wonderfully unguarded features, we see instead the stirring of a mission, one that will upend her life and alter history: to find Richard’s grave and disprove his reputation as a hunchbacked nephew-killer and unworthy usurper.

That’s a tall order for a dissatisfied woman who suffers from chronic illness and whose ex-husband (played by Steve Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope) is only marginally more tolerant than her co-workers. Yet Philippa, small and sensitive and herself a little lost, feels an affinity with the maligned monarch, gobbling up history books and finding common cause with the Richard III Society, whose members have long wondered if Richard’s twisted mind and body were fictions concocted by the Tudors and corroborated by Shakespeare. Let’s find out!

Coogan and Pope, working once again with the director Stephen Frears (the alliance that brought us the unexpectedly moving “Philomena” in 2013), have shaped Philippa’s story into an easily digestible underdog tale. Vulnerable yet adamant, Philippa bulldozes bureaucrats and scientists into supporting her plan to excavate the parking lot where she believes the King is buried. She’s an immovable force, a battering ram of niceness, and Frears (now 81, and with a stunningly varied back catalog) is beguiled by the wonder of her tenacity and intuition. Her occasional chats with Richard’s ghost might be a sugar cube too far; but the movie’s sweetness is cut with enough acid — including subversive digs at academic pomposity and rampant sexism — that it never becomes cloying.

Though raising serious questions about the way history is written, and by whom, “The Lost King” isn’t a polemic, or even a biopic. It’s a quietly droll detective story, a warm portrait of a woman who lost her health and found her purpose, exhuming her self-respect along with Richard’s bones. Those quibbling about factual liberties may be missing the point: This is a movie that’s less about rehabilitating a monarch than reinvigorating a life.

The Lost King
Rated PG-13 for a few cheeky words. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. In theaters.

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