It really is an amazing story. In 2012, led by the enthusiastic efforts of an amateur historian named Philippa Langley, archaeologists from the University of Leicester dug up a nondescript car park and discovered the remains of the notorious King Richard III, whose final resting place (and whether he even had one) had been a matter of debate ever since his death on the battlefield in 1485. Stephen Frears’s The Lost King, starring Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope), dramatizes Langley’s fascinating journey. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, right before Queen Elizabeth II herself was laid to rest — fortuitous timing, as the picture both reveals and revels in the charade of royalty.
By discussing what the movie is about, I’ve probably already spoiled the journey a bit for some, as the bulk of The Lost King tells of how Philippa (Hawkins) came to be fascinated by Richard III, and the battles she fought to get the dig to happen. It all starts (at least according to the film; the script makes some prime-time embellishments, and there may be some lawsuits) with a reluctant family trip to a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Humiliated by a know-it-all couple at intermission, Philippa fixates on the contentious nature of the facts around Richard, as much of what is known about the monarch — considered a usurper, a tyrant, and a murderer — was the work of Tudor historians, working for the family that replaced Richard’s Plantagenets on the throne after killing him in battle. It’s a striking example of history being dictated by the winners. Shakespeare wrote more than a century after Richard’s death, but his play (among his greatest) has become Exhibit A in our conception of the young king as one of Western civilization’s great villains.
Philippa becomes convinced that Richard might not have been all that bad a king, and that he might actually have been a fairly progressive, brave, well-liked fellow, one who helped make England more just. There is some historical evidence for this, but she also has her own reasons. Living with chronic fatigue syndrome, disrespected in her life and work, Philippa (played with brittle tenacity by Hawkins, who really should star in everything) sees a kindred spirit in Richard. So much of his perceived villainy seems to have been rooted in how he looked and his alleged physical disabilities. Was Richard a hunchback? Did he have a claw-like hand? Were his portraits in the Tudor era modified to make his appearance more sinister? Philippa’s obsession runs so deep that Richard III himself (Harry Lloyd — tall, regal, handsome) starts appearing to her, quietly guiding her along this seemingly quixotic quest while also lending a sympathetic ear whenever she voices her doubts.
All along the way, Philippa is met with resistance, largely because she’s a nobody, an erstwhile marketer with no background in history or archaeology. She and her fellow Ricardians — the name given to those who dispute the historical record on Richard — are considered at best a fan club, at worst a bunch of kooks. But even as she struggles against established authority, Philippa is in thrall to another, more mystical kind of power. She’s guided by intuition in her quest for Richard, believing that she has a special connection with him. Beyond finding the lost monarch, she also hopes to give him a proper burial, one befitting a king of England.
This creates an interesting tension, between the exaltation of royal power on the one hand — a spiritual belief in the magic of lineage, itself dating back to arcane notions of divine right — and, on the other, the ennobling of common individuals, of ordinary people like Philippa as they butt heads with city councils and university administrators and academic mossbacks. Her quest underlines just how meaningless it all is. Here is a skeleton found beneath a Midlands parking lot, given a royal burial. The skeleton belongs to a 32-year-old man who, through the power of his blood, ascended to the English throne. He was then deposed and killed, and a new group took over, and everyone marked with that DNA was immediately judged superior to everyone else. So on and so forth, new families entering the fray for this or that reason, right down to the absurdities — the pomp, the circumstance, the gravity, the tabloid headlines, and runaway best sellers — of the present.
And yet, there remains something stirring about it all. The fact that The Lost King never quite reconciles this tension between striving for noble recognition and the fallacy of divine majesty feels like an implicit damnation of both. Late in the film, Philippa sees Richard III one last time. He sits atop a horse, in full armor, alongside his men. He says nothing, barely even acknowledging her, as he rides off into the sunset, toward his death at Bosworth Field and the dimly lit vagaries of historical memory. It’s a moving final good-bye, for Philippa and her imaginary ghost-king pal, and perhaps to something more profound. Richard belongs to the ages, a usurper no more. But the very act of reclaiming his legacy from his now-gone Tudor rivals puts the lie to the very idea of royalty, of bloodlines, and the eternal question of who gets to have power over whom.
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