The Creative Scotland logo is all over Stephen Frears’ feature The Lost King, but there’s not much Scottish here aside from pretty Edinburgh backgrounds and a few bit part players; this is a true story about English History, written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan and produced by his Baby Cow imprint, based in Vine Hill London. The Lost King is a fictionalised account of historian Philippa Langley, who successfully located and persuaded authorities to dig up the remains of King Richard III from deep beneath a social services car park in Leicester.
Played by Sally Hawkins, Philippa Langley is introduced as a lonely figure; her husband John (Coogan) is estranged and more interested in chasing women on the Plenty of Fish dating website than attending to their two sons. Langley attends a theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and feels some kind of cosmic connection to the king that leads to his ghost popping up unexpectedly in the style of Timothy Claypole in Rentaghost. Led by the spirit of the wronged Richard, played by Harry Lloyd in a role that cries out for stunt casting, Langley somehow intuits her way to the car park in Leicester despite having little evidence other than hunches and ‘feelings’. Screwed over by the feckless authorities involved, Langley raises the cash for the dig via crowd-funding with remarkable ease given that the film portrays everyone she meets as hating Richard, and the resolution of her obsession conveniently reunites her family as well as clearing the good King’s name.
Even as a Sunday evening tv special for the oldies, The Lost King settles for twee self-empowerment sentiment and contrived conflict. While Langley is seen as an almost saintly figure, troubled by visions and blessed with a cosmic link to royalty, most of the other historians and archaeologists are portrayed as grasping, pernicious, self-important windbags. This kind of artificially-induced conflict worked in Sully: Miracle on the Hudson as a device to contrive some drama where there is none, but with the fantasy elements jarring against mundane issues of credit for the discovery, The Lost King never finds a realistic tone. And while Langley is intent in changing the way the public see Richard, there’s no real index for how opinions about him might have been shifted in national or international minds.
Aside from a casual slam on Benedict Cumberbatch, who might have made a better Richard here, The Lost King’s suggestion of some kind of magical bond between royalty and the common man feels a minor variation on the current national sport of extreme toadying to the rich and powerful; whether any this narrative happened like this or not, nothing convinces here. And having the plot conveniently resolved by crowd-funding sticks in the craw from a project mopping up funds supposedly allocated for Scottish voices; until Scotland comes to its senses politically, we’re destined to be as crudely misrepresented in history and culture as Richard III has been.