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Film Review: A quirky tale of the misogyny behind the discovery of Richard III's remains

This is a still from the movie 'The Lost King' and shows actress Sally Hawkins sitting on a park bench with a book about Richard III in her hand sitting outside in a park with a castle in the background.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Fi/Graeme Hunter
Sally Hawkins stars in 'The Lost King,' a film about a real life woman who searched for the remains of Richard III.

In 2012, the bones of England’s King Richard III were uncovered beneath a parking lot in the town of Leicester. He’d been killed in a battle between the houses of York and Tudor on Bosworth Field in 1485, and according to Shakespeare, Richard’s last words were, “A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse.”

Shakespeare’s version guided Richard’s reputation since the play was written between 1592 and 1594. Richard was that scourge who murdered his way to the throne and most despicably killed his two little nephews after clapping them into the infamous Tower of London.

But this long-held picture of Richard was abruptly upended by Phillippa Langley who followed reams of counter information, overcame the resistance of professional historians, and the entire University of Leicester, and found the money for archaeologists to dig up the king’s bones where she believed they had been dumped.

Stephen Frears has a masterful grasp of the importance of unassuming people. Sally Hawkins plays Phillippa Langley as something of a sad sack. She shares a home in Edinburgh with her two sons and her soon divorced husband. She hates her job, wears dreary clothes, and rarely manages even a timid smile. Then one evening she goes to a performance of Shakespeare’s play, and that sets her off in search of this supposedly evil and awful monarch.

Langley is a nobody, and in fringy groups like the Richard III society, she meets other nobodies — the kinds of people who sit about in pubs sharing the feeling that they are outcasts and holders of rejected truths. But as the modest hero of this unpretentious movie, Langley pushes ahead. She reads and tracks down people who might know something. She brings a cake to Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, who doesn’t quite understand what she wants.

Dressed in a blue rain jacket, actress Sally Hawkins confronts a group of men on horses in a grassy field under dark cloudy skies.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Fi/Graeme Hunter
Actress Sally Hawkins confronts Harry Lloyd playing Richard III in a scene from 'The Lost King.'

Buckley finally agrees to help. Langley meets with the town council of Leicester — and that’s when director Stephen Frears starts to reveal the layers of prejudice, sexism and academic condescension to amateurs that block Langley’s way. The men on the council think she’s a little woman out of her depth; the women on the council think she’s on to something.

A movie poster from The Lost King featuring actress Sally Hawkins and actor Harry Lloyd dressed as Richard III smiling at each other on bench.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Fi
THE LOST KING Theatrical Poster

'The Lost King' is not about whether Langley was right. It was major news when Richard III’s skeleton was found, well before the film was made. This picture is about how the men first try to block Langley’s search, but then grab credit for the archaeological triumph. It’s all done quietly. Two kinds of instinct play out in the movie – Langley’s instinct for where Richard’s bones will be found, and the men’s instinct for how to take over.

'The Lost King' has an eye for practiced hypocrisy. Just as the bones are discovered, university officials glide in to stand for TV interviews. They calmly ignore Langley and slide her to the sidelines. Buckley, her supposed archaeologist friend, claims that at least he has the decency to feel guilty — but the film sees right through him.

And to the movie’s credit, it admits that Langley is a little nutty. She converses with a hallucinated Richard, and she somehow feels where the bones lay. But so what? A little madness gets the job done. And, in spite of the slimy men, it’s Phillippa Langley who is named a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

You can find local showtimes here.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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