While attending a performance of Shakespeare's 'Richard III', Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) is taken by the plight of the hunch-baked monarch (Harry Lloyd) and begins an obsessive quest which leads her to eventually organising and funding an archaeological dig in a car park in Leicester that may contain the final resting place of the real-life Richard III...
Although Steve Coogan is associated more closely with his comedic endeavours - Alan Partridge being his crowning achievement - he's managed to diversify into understated dramedies, the most notable being 'Philomena'. On paper, 'The Lost King' would feel like a companion piece to it. You have a story about a marginalised woman, in this case Sally Hawkins, who is ignored by powers that be and has to fight to be heard and taken seriously. There's a quiet dignity about both of them, yes, yet that's really where the similarities end. Where 'Philomena' dealt with something real and tangible - Ireland's shameful history in dealing with "fallen women" and the fallout from it - 'The Lost King' has to contend with something that is utterly pointless to a lot of people and a bone (no pun intended) of contention between many others.
Namely, the British monarchy.
To its credit, 'The Lost King' does its best not to lionise or venerate the idea of monarchy. Sally Hawkins' character passionately argues that Richard III has been the subject of "Tudor propaganda" and has been demonised through the works of William Shakespeare. The script then draws a line between Hawkins' character, the real-life Philippa Gregory, and Richard III in that they are both misunderstood people who have been pushed to the side because of their perceived disability. Richard III's hunchback is later revealed to have been scoliosis, while the real-life Philippa Gregory suffers from ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome. This goes a step further when Richard III - played by Harry Lloyd - frequently appears to Hawkins' character in moments of doubt or contemplation, with her voicing her concerns or doubts to him, or urging herself to vindicate him. Yet, the final scene sees Richard III in full royal garb galloping off across a green field with the royal flag by his horse as his legacy as a usurper is brought to an end.
There's an earnestness to 'The Lost King' that is at odds with Coogan's comedic writing, where his work is often marked by broad satire and deep cynicism in British society generally. While Hawkins gives a committed and forceful performance, it does become gnawingly trite in parts. A third act which sees Hawkins' character sidelined by the academic institutions who previously had no interest in her project comes off as far too convenient and tidy, even if it is the truth of the matter. 'The Lost King' then disintegrates into a struggle over who's earned the accolade and the deserved commendation for finding Richard III, whether it was the University of Leicester and the history department led by Mark Addy's character, or by Sally Hawkins' character and the band of misfits that make up the Richard III Society.
'The Lost King' falls victim to its own cliches of noble quests and fallen kings, and is too low-stakes and too plain in its telling for it to capture audiences. It's surprising especially when you consider that Stephen Frears previously directed 'The Queen', the aforementioned 'Philomena', and 'A Very English Scandal', all of which avoided the same potential pitfalls 'The Lost King' lands itself in at every chance.
The king's name may be a tower of strength, but the king is but a man. 'The Lost King' is just another run-of-the-mill dramedy about a news story that has fretted its hour upon a stage, and has been heard of no more. It's not told by an idiot, but it has no sound and fury, but it ultimately signifies nothing.