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5 October 2022

The Lost King: a sly, subversive take on the discovery of Richard III

Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan star in Stephen Frears’ witty dramatisation of the monarch’s extraction from a Leicester car park.

By David Sexton

Stephen Frears, a charming grump, always denies that he is any kind of auteur. I interviewed him in 2017, just before he accepted the preposterously titled “Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Film-maker Award” at the Venice Film Festival, and brightly asked him what he would say if he had to write his own citation on why he deserved such a prize. He simply, alarmingly, groaned out loud. Then, stirring himself to offer something at least, said: “For getting away with it.”

Frears, now 81, with 24 feature films as well as loads of TV drama to his name, has never written his own scripts. What he does pride himself on is spotting good stories when they come his way. Similarly, he says he gets great performances by choosing good actors in the first place, not by directing them much afterwards. For some time now, those stories have all come from real life. He thinks that Hollywood cinema has pretty much abandoned life, whereas his films are about what he calls “odd bits of it”.

[See also: Don’t Worry Darling is a derivative let-down]

However familiar the story, however well documented, he finds the imaginative space to tell it again, better. Thus we have had such treats as The Queen; the TV series about the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, A Very English Scandal; and Philomena.

Now here’s another. In September 2012, the nearly complete skeleton of Richard III was discovered in a municipal car park in Leicester, the identification being confirmed by DNA analysis as well as carbon-dating and physical characteristics. The discovery was announced at a press conference in February 2013 and, after much dispute about the matter, HRH was reburied in an impressive tomb in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

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The excavation and identification were carried out by University of Leicester Archaeological Services but the driving force behind the discovery was a rank amateur, one Philippa Langley, formerly in advertising and sales, who had become interested in Richard III after reading a biography of him in the early 1990s. Planning a screenplay about Richard, she visited Leicester in 2004 and, entering the car park, had a weird intuition, complete with goose bumps, that she was walking over his grave. On a second visit a year later, she found the spot marked with a painted “R”, meaning “reserved”, but for her an unignorable omen.

With the Richard III Society, she eventually raised the money to commission a two-week dig, insisting it be focused on the very place where the remains would be found. Having twice failed to interest Time Team, she also brought with her a Channel 4 documentary crew. Richard III: The King in the Car Park was broadcast in February 2013 on the day of the press conference. Langley often appears emotional in the documentary, distressed by the violence the bones reveal, crying and leaving the room on seeing them laid out, saying: “I don’t see bones on that table, I see a man, a living, breathing human being.” She even says: “It’s like you could just talk to him, have a conversation with him.”

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Leicester University, embarrassed by Langley’s role in the discovery, was unsure how to credit such a layperson. She was not on the panel at the 2013 press conference and the university website about the discovery still downplays and patronises her.

The Lost King, announcing itself as not just a true story but “her story”, aims to put that right. The script, by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, compresses the background narrative but otherwise adheres to the events revealed in the documentary. The one big fictional leap is that Langley finds herself literally haunted by King Richard (Harry Lloyd), in purple cloak and golden crown, sitting on benches outside her house, riding on the train to Leicester, eventually chatting to her, a realisation of her subconscious that could perhaps have been developed further. No matter.

Sally Hawkins, though far from a ringer for Langley (who is blonde and blue-eyed), makes her wonderfully engaging, bringing out how her search for the King is also a search for herself – both of them physically challenged, both unfairly relegated by others. A restrained Coogan plays her affable, separated husband, John, at first sceptical (“Richard who?”) but ultimately supportive.

Stephen Frears’s direction is agile, sly and entertaining as ever. Like all his films, it’s innately subversive of authority, sympathetic to the outsider, relishing peculiarity. That such a slight slant on reality should make a known true story so enjoyable, so satisfyingly shaped, is remarkable in itself. Getting away with it, that would be.

“The Lost King” is in cinemas from 7 October

[See also: Catherine Called Birdy: The secret diary of a medieval teen]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!