If you’re a fan of “The Trip” and its sequels, those semi-improvised road comedies in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play slightly exaggerated versions of their real-life selves, you’ll know that they’re about more than just two men driving through the European countryside, eating fabulous food, trying to top each other with their Al Pacino impersonations. Coogan, in particular, comes off as a fellow who, for all his larkish narcissism, is so steeped in history that it’s literally alive for him. And that’s the feeling that courses through “The Lost King,” the new movie written by Coogan and Jeff Pope and directed by Stephen Frears.
They’re the team that gave us “Philomena” (2013), the sharp-tongued heart-tugger that cast Judi Dench as a real-life Irishwoman tracking down the son she’d been forced to give up for adoption 50 years before. That movie was fine (a tad too sentimental in my book), but “The Lost King” is a growth ring, a richer, stronger, and more moving piece of work, a historical detective story that carries the kick of a true-life “Da Vinci Code.”
The central character is Philippa Langley, a middle-class British divorcée who, with no special knowledge or skill, goes on a quest to find the remains of King Richard III. That sounds like an impossible dream, but even when we think it is Coogan and Pope’s script sees the flaky humanity of it.
Sally Hawkins, who has given so many extraordinary performances and, in this movie, may just give her greatest one yet, plays Philippa as an “ordinary” woman distinguished by everything that’s dysfunctional about her. She works in a London sales office, where she’s not exactly on the fast track, in part because she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and is viewed, at least in her office, as a psychosomatic head case. Philippa gets along nicely with her ex-husband, John (played by Coogan at his cuddliest and least cutting, which is still pretty cutting). They’re the parents of two sons, and we gather that the dissolution of their marriage had much to do with her depression, her “eccentricities,” her withdrawal from life.
Hawkins, in short dark hair styled with jarring severity (the real Langley had blonde hair she wore long, though who’s counting?), makes Philippa visibly troubled. But that’s partly because of how emotionally raw and unprotected she is. Hawkins lets us read every shade of her woe, along with the hyper-sensitive responses she has to everyone around her.
Philippa is fiercely intelligent, but at 45 she’s become a kind of angry church mouse, passed over by the system. One evening, she takes one of her sons to see a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” She doesn’t much care for it. She thinks it’s unconvincing that Richard would have been a monster just because he had a hunchback (which is really her sympathy for his damage), but afterwards the play haunts her. So does Richard — literally. She keeps seeing him, in the person of the handsome actor (Harry Lloyd) who played him onstage, sitting outside her flat in his bejeweled crown and purple robe. She goes to a bookstore and buys eight books about the real Richard, and it doesn’t take long for her to decide that the conventional view of him — as a crippled soul, a malevolent monarch, a man who usurped the throne — is not correct.
She crashes a pub gathering of the Richard III Society, which is basically a drinking club for bookworms, and that’s the first time she realizes that she’s not alone. There are other Richard obsessives. More than that, she’s onto something. “The Lost King” isn’t just about the search for Richard’s bones. It’s a movie that’s investigating the mystery of how historical reality comes into being. Is the conventional view of Richard III rooted in reality? Or is it, in fact, a legend, one given extraordinary weight by Shakespeare, that snowballed over the centuries into The Truth?
These are questions of legitimate fascination; they’re a historian’s questions. But Philippa isn’t a historian. She’s a messed-up single parent who ditches her job after being passed over for a promotion and launches her own private historical wild goose chase, even though it won’t pay the bills. And it’s all because she looks at her dream image of Richard — he was noble! he was misunderstood! — and glimpses her own damaged, misunderstood self. She begins to have conversations with Richard, though she’s the one who does all the talking, and even the audience starts to ask itself: Is she losing it? Going quietly mad? Forging a “quest” that’s really a quixotic plunge into her neurotic dark side?
Stephen Frears, director of “The Queen,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” is now 81, and he directs “The Lost King” with a staid but steady elegance. He stages it almost as a whistleblower saga — “All the President’s Men” with one amateur reporter, full of dusty books and rumors about old churches — but in his shrewd way he gets us hooked on the slowly mounting information of it all. At first we think: If Richard’s remains were going to be discovered, wouldn’t historians with far greater resources than Philippa have done it long ago? But as she begins to research the question, what she sees is that the details are out there; it’s just that no one has bothered to put them together. She learns that Richard was, in all likelihood, buried at Greyfriars, a church in Leicester that disappeared centuries ago. She learns, through a random connection, that Greyfriars is probably linked to an area called Herrick’s Garden. And when a 500-year-old map of the area is laid over a contemporary map, there’s a hint of awe.
Hawkins makes Philippa’s obsession deeply personal — her drive to find Richard is really her need to connect with the side of herself she’s misplaced. It parallels her reconnection with her ex-husband. Yet the beauty of “The Lost King” is that it’s saying: This is what a historian is. A detective ruled by compulsion. In cultivating her supreme hunch that Richard is not the monster of legend, Philippa is reclaiming history by debunking our need for villains. “The Lost King” serves up some villains of its own. Philippa forms an alliance with Richard Buckley, an archaeologist connected to the University of Leicester, and after he gets fired, she spearheads the funding for their mission, crowdsourcing $36,000 so they can excavate the parking lot outside a social-services branch in Leicester. Yes! She has found Richard III (maybe) in a parking lot. But as the digging commences, more powerful forces than Philippa start to want the credit.
“The Lost King” is, in part, about who writes history, and who claims the credit for it. The answer is often: not the right people. Then again, it’s not as if Philippa is the only one who ever looked into this issue; she’s standing on the shoulders of many others. Yet she’s the one who had the compulsion, maybe the craziness, to put the puzzle together. And when we finally behold what’s beneath that parking lot, it gives you chills. It’s like something out of “Alien” crossed with something of unimaginable tenderness. Philippa doesn’t just find Richard III. She finds a piece of Britain, and herself too.