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‘The Lost King,’ Athena Film Festival Review of a Superb Film

Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley in 'The Lost King' (courtesy of IFC films and Athena Film Festival)
Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley in The Lost King (courtesy of IFC films and Athena Film Festival)

In the superb hybrid comedy-drama-mystery The Lost King, based on Philippa Langley and Michael Jones’ non-fiction book The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III (2013), one can see a marvelous Frears film (director) and discover information about Richard III beyond William Shakespeare’s titular play and the Tudor’s 500 +-years-old smear of him. One will also be delighted with fine views of London, Edinburgh, the Edinburgh castle and Mon’s Meg (the Medieval cannon on display). The film, an offering presented at Athena Film Festival 2023, also had a talk-back with a panel of women with journalism and film production backgrounds.

After the screening the panel briefly focused on “Uncovering Stories Lost to History.” Compelling stories that must be told often find them by serendipity. Also discussed were important themes of the film, principally how women have been silenced while men, especially those in academia, have stomped their way around them making mistake after mistake, when they should have had the humility to listen with a collaborative spirit, the hallmark of wisdom.

Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope The Lost King premiered at Toronto International film Festival and was released in UK cinemas in October. It will be released by IFC in theaters on March 19th and will then be on streaming services.

Trailer of The Lost King starring Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan with Harry Lloyd as Richard III.

The film is special for many reasons. First, for its heroine, protagonist Philippa Langley (portrayed by the always incredible Sally Hawkins), who must stand her ground and fight against the male academic establishment, which nearly thwarts the triumphant discovery of the body of King Richard III. But for the will, wisdom and mystical consciousness of Philippa Langley, Frears and screenwriters make crystal clear that the body of Richard III would not have been discovered in the right area. And then, when it was uncovered, pride and the need for the power to “be right” would have ignored and dismissed the remains to be an insignificant personage, instead of the real king whose skeleton revealed the truth of his deformity.

The importance of the film and its themes have been underestimated by critics. Frears emphasizes vital elements about academia and research that unfortunately appear accurate in Philippa Langley’s case. More important than degrees which numb one to institutional group think, power games and cover ups, there is the passion required for historical research and inquiry that can move mountains and land on crucial discoveries. Sometimes the passion becomes an obsession, almost like a divine anointing which is what happens to Philippa, who becomes enamored of the story of Richard III, after she sees a production of Shakespeare’s play and begins to do her own research because the actor who plays the king (Harry Lloyd) elicits sympathy from her.

Athena Film Festival 2023 (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Philippa asks the right questions on her search, and she collaborates with others as she learns to question what the “experts” and the crackpots alike say. Her passion leads her to fund her own project as an independent researcher. She is not beholden to institutions who “control” history and deem which stories are “worthy” to be told for various reasons. The credibility and viability of well documented, independent, detailed, factual research is supported roundly by this film. Likewise, the corruption and support of shoddy research with an agenda, or skewed research to glean certain results and not others, which occurs in educational institutions dependent upon corporate donors, is excoriated by this film. The latter is a siren song and warning which has been taken to task by the very institution which took acclaim for the project, and sidelined Philippa.

Langley’s journey into information not normally known to the public and which, even historical scholars following established canon find challenging, is exciting. The conceit of Richard III’s spirit moving her is symbolic and profound. Each time the spirit appears, she acts. She joins a society in Edinburgh which believes the same as she, that Richard III was not the usurper of history but was maligned for corrupt purposes by those contending for the throne. Additionally, she discovers that Richard III has never been entombed or properly recognized as a King of England. His reputation of legend is as a wicked murderer of his nephews in the Tower of London. Additional rumors had it that his body either was thrown into the River Soar or buried in the Greyfriars Priory somewhere in Leicester, which was later destroyed by modernization, in a London paved over by roads and buildings in subsequent centuries. Nevertheless, spurred by visions and dreams of the actor who portrayed Richard III as emblematic of the king’s spirit reaching for proper recognition and burial from beyond the grave, she grows determined that perhaps she might locate the burial site of Richard III.

Philippa Langley and Dr. Ashdown-Hill at the ceremonial burial of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral (courtesy of Peter Broster)
Philippa Langley and Dr. Ashdown-Hill at the ceremonial burial of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral (courtesy of Peter Broster)

Her research and passion to uncover the grave and other truths about Richard III lead her to lectures where she meets professors, some dismissive of her ideas, others accepting and open to her lack of degrees and passion about discovering Richard III’s grave. An accepting professor she meets is Dr. Ashdown-Hill. He is publishing a genetic genealogical study on a Canadian direct descendant of Richard III’s sister. Ashdown-Hill tells her to look for Richard in open spaces in Leicester. Because of superstition and reverence, old abbeys were preserved after the buildings crumbled; it was unacceptable to build over them. So in open fields or spaces in cities, abbeys most often could be found.

Driven by a mystical sense and intuition, and encouraged by her work with the Richard III Society in Edinburgh, Philippa Langley raises the funds and contacts other professors (archeologists) who at first express it’s a noble idea but decline involvement. Then circumstances change when their funding is cut and they rush to become involved in her project which she commissions and funds, all the while working with the Richard III Society and recording her journey. Following seven and a half years of research and investigation, during which she reads Annette Carson’s Richard III: The Maligned King, she identifies the site of the church and grave and leads the dig, insisting after they ignore the remains in one of three trenches, that they dig in the first trench where she determined intuitively the body was buried. After hours, they proved she was right. Her triumphant discovery was the first of its kind searching for the lost grave of an anointed King of England, by someone who was not an institutional academic.

Though the film takes place over a decade, filmmakers highlight Langley’s obstacles and life’s intrusions, the gradual acceptance and help from her former husband John (Steve Coogan) and the physical difficulties from ME disease and exhaustion Hawkins’ Langley must overcome. A galling noteworthy point emphasized by Langley and screenwriters are the recalcitrant, closed-minded prejudgments by academia who diminish her efforts and lift up their own to the point of gaslighting for their own glory. Naturally, the professors in question dispute the film’s account, though it is indeed on record as an alarming fact that they sought glory, when they held a global press conference to announce “what they had done.”

Athena Film Festival 2023 (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

However, they excluded Philippa Langley’s presence. She wasn’t informed about the press conference. They did not have the grace to invite her to the conference to speak about her commissioning the project, her extensive research, her passion and will to find the site and even her insistence that they not ignore the remains they found, where she said she believed they would be. To not have her present is damning evidence that they intended to minimize her efforts, which comprises a scene in the film. This scene and the ending scenes of the film are superb as Frears shows what the institutional academics celebrate and what Philippa celebrates. Rightly so, Queen Elizabeth had a ceremonial investiture for Philippa and Dr. Ash-Down Hill. Both received an MBE in the 2015 Birthday Honors for “services to the exhumation and identification of Richard III.”

Frears and the screenwriters emphasize this craven disregard of academia for the independently funded research by one who had a much greater passion for truth than those controlled by institutional handlers. But the point is made that there are fine academics, who are unlike those who undeservedly look for glory. With the help of like-minded Dr. Ash-Down Hill, those in the Richard III Society and other independent female researchers like Annette Carson, after 500 years, a lost king has been found.

For more photos and information about the dig and Philippa Langley, go to her website:

The film is a triumph and should be shown in universities everywhere. Frears’ heroine breaks through past institutional knowledge whose “guardians” not only repeatedly miss the mark, but intentionally, to maintain their power, botch and blunder investigative research. In this instance and in the record of events, it is at the last minute when, about to be embarrassed by their own stupidity, the individuals barrel in and attempt to take all the credit.

The film is a testament to independent researchers, female pluck and intuitive mysticism, and those men who know when to listen and assist to get the job done. It is also an excoriation of institutional learning and universities, a fount of crass, meretricious commercialism, which sets up undeserved memorials to itself and academics while doing little to uplift their mission. Their mission should be to research, discover and be open to the unbiased, unblemished, uncorrupted paths toward truth and knowledge, not for the riches and notoriety to be garnered.

British archeologist and academic Michael Pitt’s response to a favorable Guardian review of The Lost King, indeed appears to be “protesting too much” when he insists, “Contrary to movie PR and most media coverage, however, its key thread is fiction: the “bubble of academic arrogance” is a fantasy of the film’s anti-intellectual agenda.” What Pitt’s overbroad, misguided opinion fails to note is, it is also possible to be anti-intellectual because one is beholden to those funding one’s research. Thought happens in spite of academia not because of it. An open, collaborative, passionately investigative spirit is what the film uplifts, a practice followed by Philippa Langley. The closed system, the anti-intellectual group think among researchers that takes over institutions when careers are more important than truths, is what the film decries. Bravo! See it on March 19th in NYC.

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