Sally Hawkins Stands Out in Stephen Frears Film
Mar 24, 2023
This review was originally published as part of coverage for the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Philippa Longley (Sally Hawkins) is having a difficult time in her life. She’s been overlooked for an exciting position at her job, she suffers from chronic fatigue, and she and her ex-husband John (Steve Coogan) are trying to raise their children together as they deal with their separation. After she sees a particularly affecting performance of Richard III, Philippa becomes fascinated by the title character, and the questionable legacy of the man—believing his past to be more fiction than fact. In Richard III, Philippa sees a bit of herself, another misunderstood person who deserves defending. In order to find out the truth about Richard III and his past, Philippa decides to try and find his remains that have long been lost to rumor.
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On this journey, Philippa is often visited by Richard III (Harry Lloyd), who waits outside her home, quietly waiting for her assistance in finding his remains. It’s a bit of magical realism injected into this story of a person who followed her beliefs, as opposed to the “truths” that people tried to push on her. Philippa’s quest is largely influenced by her belief that Richard III is buried in a car park, and while Philippa certainly does her research on this matter, it’s her faith that she’s right that seems to guide her journey in The Lost King.
Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity) and written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, The Lost King often feels like this trio’s last collaboration, Philomena, which also found a woman (often assisted by Coogan) attempting to find the truth out about a sordid past. Like Philomena, The Lost King is about an underdog trying to take on the establishment, and how that challenge can often feel like fighting against a brick wall.
Image via IFC Films
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Philippa finds herself meeting with a group called the Richard III Society, who similarly wants to find out the truth about the departed king, stating that Shakespeare’s play was simply more attractive than the truth. As The Lost King goes on, it seems as though the same could be said about The Lost King itself. This is a decent underdog story that often works thanks to reliable performances, but it’s hard to imagine that the real story isn’t far more interesting than the one that we’re being presented. It’s as if Coogan and Pope almost don’t feel confidence that the original story is interesting on its own, instead, inserting in ghost kings to add a little something to this story of a woman trying to find a buried king.
Like so many of Frears’ films, The Lost King works because of the compelling cast on hand. Hawkins is naturally great as Philippa, a woman who has been passed over far too many times, and doesn’t want the same fate to continue for Richard III. Hawkins brings a vulnerability to the role, and yet a power and determination that sees her through this quest. The Lost King works not because of Frears, Pope or Coogan, but because Hawkins can bring a great amount of compassion and care to this character who just want to make things right—even if it’s for a long-dead royal.
Coogan is also quite good here, and the dynamic between him and Hawkins is also a welcome addition, as John becomes wary of Philippa at first, then slowly becomes warily supporting in her journey. Coogan’s arc is lovely, and some of the finest moments in The Lost King rely on watching these two eventually get closer together in a way they haven’t been in years. If we take anything from The Lost King, it’s that Coogan and Hawkins should certainly play off each other in more films.
Image via IFC Films
Like Frears’ most recent films, Florence Foster Jenkins and Victoria & Abdul, The Lost King is slightly meandering for the first half, building to a rousing payoff in the final act for these characters. While the journey to find King Richard III’s bones might drag at times, the third act manages to make for an excellent dénouement—even though it largely focuses on an excavation crew digging holes in a parking lot. Say what you will about Frears’ films, he knows how to win over an audience in the final act.
But it’s in the excitement of the film’s final third where the weight of the rest of the film can be felt. As Philippa seemingly gets closer to her goal, there’s a rousing joy to the end of this journey, especially when she comes face-to-face with the men along the way that have held her back. The real power and heft of this narrative all feels pushed to the backend of the film, which in hindsight, makes the first two acts feel fairly unremarkable by comparison.
Yet The Lost King, like Philomena, is one of those Frears films that has an inherent charm to it that it is easy to get lost in. There are a lot of odd choices made in The Lost King, from the introduction of Richard III as a character who can help guide Philippa toward her goal, to a story that holds all of its dramatic weight until the last third. But ultimately, thanks to Frears’ touch, and Hawkins’ unrelenting and rousing performance, it’s hard not to get won over by The Lost King—even if this is another example of a story that is more attractive than the truth.
The Lost King is now playing in theaters.
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