In ‘The Lost King,’ Sally Hawkins Gets a Ghostly Guide in Search for Royal Bones

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White woman with short brown hair sits on bench with books on Richard III.
Sally Hawkins in 'The Lost King.' (Courtesy of IFC Films)

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.

A white man in a helmet and red and blue regalia sits on an armored horse
Harry Lloyd as Richard III in 'The Lost King.' (Courtesy of IFC Films)

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.


What the film doesn’t contend with is the question of why so many British citizens like Philippa care about the monarchy at all — whether a queen or a princess is living on this plane or in the great hereafter. In so many of his films, Frears addresses how the classism baked into the history of the British Isles has done very real damage. Odd, then, to see him directing a film about a middle-class person obsessed with the honor of someone who symbolizes that very hierarchy.

Philippa’s ex-husband John (Steve Coogan) provides welcome skepticism of Philippa’s quest. But even John doesn’t frame his doubts in terms of the country’s devotion to the exalted, landowning, jewel-encrusted royals. Coogan co-wrote the screenplay and structures it in a similar way to Philomena (2013), another film co-written by Coogan and directed by Frears.

White woman and white man sit on a bench looking at each other
Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan in 'The Lost King.' (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Both movies’ plots are driven by detective work. In Philomena, though, the melodrama is pitched up with much higher stakes, as an elderly woman searches for the son she was forced to give up at childbirth. Philippa’s quest is, to her, just as personal, but it’s much less involving for the audience. We can dispassionately applaud her improved confidence as she journeys towards self-empowerment, and marvel at her supernatural intuition.

It’s no spoiler to note that in real life, as in the film, Philippa — with the help of her helpful spirit guide — figures out exactly where Richard’s skeleton is buried, her hunch confirmed by DNA tests. Frears lingers on Hawkins’ face as an archaeologist points out a curvature in Richard’s spine, further validating her affinity for the slandered king.

But whether her personal victory carries larger meaning — and to whom — is up for debate. She insists that Richard be interred with his coat of arms, to signify his rightful place alongside previous British monarchs, and her demands are met: the king’s bones are buried with a pretty crest. It’s difficult, as an American, to believe any member of the monarchy could possibly be an underdog, as The Lost King seems to posit. Anti-royalists may have difficulty tapping into the emotional arc of Philippa’s journey, but Hawkins is, per usual, an endearing, relatable presence. It’s easy to root for her to win.

‘The Lost King’ opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, March 24.