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Review: The Lost King Tells the Charming True Story of a Determined Amateur Historian

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Richard III as a fictional character has a lot to answer for: Shakespeare painted him as a deformed, power-mad schemer. But Richard III as a real person? Evidence suggests he was more complicated than that. With his charming, sympathetic picture The Lost King, Stephen Frears digs into the fairly recent rehabilitation of the misunderstood monarch’s legacy—as well as the 2012 discovery of his long-lost bones beneath a Leicester parking lot.

Sally Hawkins plays Philippa Langley, the real-life amateur historian instrumental in figuring out where, exactly, the last Plantagenet King had been buried. Hawkins’ Philippa suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness that’s not always taken seriously. She’s close with her ex-husband (Steve Coogan), though even he occasionally loses patience with her. (Coogan and Jeff Pope wrote the script for The Lost King, adapting it from The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III, by Langley and Michael Jones.) An encounter with a mansplaining Shakespeare expert—who has no idea what he’s talking about—so aggravates Philippa that she’s driven to learn more about the real Richard. Eventually, she persuades a top archaeologist (Mark Addy) to dig for the ruins of the church where Richard was said to have been interred, rather ignobly, in 1485.

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Langley’s conviction about that burial site was largely a ripple of intuition, and Hawkins plays her as a woman forced to fight skepticism and dismissal at every turn: she radiates a brazen confidence that shines through any surface impression of timidity. In the end, Philippa’s understated persistence wins the day, leading her to a dramatic arrangement of bones that, given the fallen King’s famous spinal curvature, are almost literally shaped like a question mark—though what they really represent, at long last, is the finality of an answer.

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