In the new film The Lost King, Philippa Langley (played by Sally Hawkins) communes with the ghost of a dead king seem like it’s a normal part of her day. Watching her chat out loud to no one in particular, her family thinks she’s having a psychotic breakdown, and it would be understandable if the audience agreed. But director Stephen Frears adds nuance by telling the story from Philippa’s point of view — that of a weary underdog.
When King Richard III (Harry Lloyd) appears on screen in his polyester royal blue robe and a brushed tin crown, he looks like a centuries-old monarch by way of Monty Python. But because Philippa’s vision of Richard is so specific, so subjective, filtered through her modern-day eyes, we believe the visions and visitations are real, even if the king only materializes for her.
Since there’s a real actor playing the part, it’s easier for the audience to suspend a sense of disbelief. Like Gene Tierney’s character in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Hawkins has someone to react to rather than to stare, abstractedly, into the eyes of a CGI effect. (Unlike that 1947 film, Philippa and Richard aren’t star-crossed lovers who transcend the spectral realm.)
The Lost King is, in fact, based on a true story. The film opens with Philippa experiencing a professional disappointment, and we learn that almost no one around her believes in her ongoing chronic fatigue syndrome. Soon after, Philippa takes one of her sons to see a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and finds herself obsessed. From there, she’s driven by a quixotic crusade to find the king’s remains, with the help of the king’s spirit himself.
Supporting this quest are members of a local Richard III society — a group of eccentrics who gather at a pub to share their conviction that Shakespeare, literary scholars and historians sullied the king’s (actually benevolent) reputation after his death. Philippa, with her isolating, debilitating condition, has plenty of reason to identify with Richard; the king is depicted with a physical deformity, often described as a “hunchback.” She considers herself an outsider, as would most people who converse with phantom figures over morning tea.