‘The Lost King’ review: Sally Hawkins charms in inspiring underdog story

On 22 March 2015, two friends and I stood for hours on a Leicester street to glimpse an event that none of us ever expected to see: the funeral procession of a medieval king.

That we were there at all was due to one woman: the amateur historian Philippa Langley, who organised the archaeological dig that discovered Richard III’s remains under a Leicester car park in 2012. Ten years on, The Lost King revisits her remarkable story.

The plot largely follows Langley’s 2013 book, though the timeline has been compressed and certain details changed to convey background information more succinctly or dramatically.

The on-screen Philippa (brilliantly played by Paddington star Sally Hawkins) first encounters Richard III at a performance of Shakespeare’s iconic play. Overlooked at work due to her debilitating ME, Philippa empathises with the ‘hunchback’ king, feeling that he too was unfairly judged for his disability. After learning that Richard has no grave at which she can pay her respects, she decides to investigate whether or not his remains really are lost to time.

It is inspiring to watch Philippa gather her evidence and work to get her dig off – or rather, under – the ground. Battling recurrent illness, setbacks, academic scepticism and the bewilderment of ex-husband John (Steve Coogan), Philippa draws strength from her fellow Ricardians – ‘the fan club’, as one ‘professional’ historian dismisses them – and her faith in Richard.

The king himself (Game of Thrones actor Harry Lloyd) even appears to Philippa several times, a creative device which gives voice to her inner thoughts and anxieties.

It is rare to see a film which captures the joys, frustrations and eccentricities of the historian’s journey with such affection. Kudos also to the producers for highlighting some of the realities of modern archaeological practice: Indiana Jones and the Council Car Park this is not.

Sadly, the film is overshadowed by the controversy around its allegedly ‘inaccurate’ portrayal of certain University of Leicester staff. The filmmakers claim their presentation of the story reflects Langley’s experiences, but Langley herself writes generally favourably of her relationship with the University in her book.

Underdog stories need a villain to elevate the hero and it feels like the University has been made to fit the mould. It is ironic that the woman who scorned the Tudors for blackening Richard’s name with their propaganda now stands accused of having her own story rewritten by the same means.

Its faults aside, The Lost King is an enjoyable and timely watch. It taps into contemporary discussions around the need to evaluate what we think we know about history, to seek out new evidence and remain open to alternative interpretations.

And with our late Queen’s extraordinary funeral still fresh in our memories, the significance of finally enabling one of her predecessors to rest in due state seems greater still.


The Lost King is out in UK cinemas now.

Reviewed by our guest writer Matthew Abel.