San Francisco Chronicle
‘Lost King’ digs up truth about Richard III
In 2012, the bones of King Richard III were discovered and excavated from underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. He had been buried there since 1485, without anyone knowing it besides the people who put him there more than 500 years ago.
“The Lost King” tells that real-life story of the discovery through a semifictional account of how it all happened, thanks to the efforts of a somewhat eccentric amateur historian, Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins). With no money or connections and with no stature as a scholar, Langley somehow persuaded institutions and donors to back her theory that Richard was somewhere under the parking lot.
Previously, it was assumed by many that, after Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field, his remains were just dumped in a river. After all, he wasn’t exactly popular.
These days, at least to the general public, Richard is best known for the Shakespeare play, “Richard III,” which presented him as a hunchback and a villain of such consummate wickedness that, in some productions, he’s actually almost funny.
But that was a caricature, and as a result, there have sprung up groups of people devoted to changing Richard’s public image for the better. To these people, known as Ricardians, it’s not enough to say that King Richard wasn’t quite so horrible as Shakespeare claimed; they insist that he was an enlightened monarch. In their minds, they are out to correct an enormous wrong.
In “The Lost King,” Philippa shares the same conviction. She wants Richard to get a proper burial, but she is also hoping that the remains will show that there was nothing wrong with the king’s back and that he was a handsome guy. Her belief is that all the unflattering paintings of King Richard, done after his death, were just propaganda by his victorious enemies.
The real story of the King Richard dig is fascinating, but the movie, directed by Stephen Frears (“Cheri,” “The Queen”), is just OK. It concentrates on Philippa’s struggle to get the project off the ground, then makes short shrift of the dig itself, which was remarkable and borderline miraculous: They found Richard on the first day of the excavation.
Moreover, because the movie is so Philippa-centric, it soft-pedals the fact that the bones actually refuted some Ricardian expectations. Yes, King Richard III wasn’t a hunchback, he probably didn’t walk with a limp, and he probably looked fairly normal with his clothes on. But he suffered from severe scoliosis, which would have been quite noticeable when he had his shirt off.
Also, computer imaging, based on his skull, indicates that the paintings that the Ricardians insisted were doctored were, in fact, accurate renderings of Richard’s features. Love him or hate him, King Richard wasn’t a looker.
Yet, instead of concentrating on fun stuff like that, the movie contains about 10 too many scenes of Hawkins, as Philippa, having conversations with an imaginary King Richard III (Harry Lloyd). Sorry, but of all the actors in all the world, Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”) is the one who least needs an imaginary friend.
On the plus side, it’s easy to believe Hawkins as someone in the grip of an all-consuming obsession, and her innate underdog quality makes it very easy to root for her. She may not be right about King Richard, but she knows where he is and she makes us want her to triumph over all the stuffed shirts and skeptics in her path.
The bottom line: Despite its flaws in emphasis, “The Lost King” has a story that was just impossible to kill.