‘The Lost King,’ Athena Film Festival Review of a Superb Film
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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: https://www.philippalangley.co.uk/gallery.html
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.
‘Richard III’ Shakespeare in the Park, a Stunning Achievement
For sixty years the Public Theater has kept its mission to offer free Shakespeare in the Park to educate and entertain in the finest of historical traditions that explore Shakespearean theater. This year as in previous years there are two productions Richard III and As You Like It offered in the lovely environs of the Delacorte.
Richard III explodes on the stage with energy and vibrance sported by an amazing and diversely talented cast overseen with stark determination, elegance and astute attention to detail by Tony nominated director Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) in his debut at the Delacorte. The production runs until July 17th, and is a must see event. So plan accordingly. You don’t want to miss what will surely be an award winner whose cracker jack design team blasts one’s socks off with beauty, majesty and thematic coherence.
From the moment Richard III kills Henry VI in a striking, surprising, violent moment on the circular platform center stage, to the end when Richard III in warring armor is killed, Danai Gurira doesn’t miss one beat in her authentic, dynamic and spot-on performance. Pinging every nerve of the malevolent genius of Richard, she never hesitates or pulls back. Throughout she wryly, intelligently gives sideways glances and makes ironic comments to the audience, who she wins over as we enjoy watching her unfold her wicked plans. This, Gurira does with humanity and a comfortable, cavalier attitude sans anger which comes later when her fears grow to maintain her crowning success and the kingdom. Indeed, she compels us to giver her license to endear us to her, as she gradually owns her enemies and seduces us with her frank, honestly expressed intentions.
Of course, these are given to us with jocular aplomb and sly smiles. Meanwhile, she lies, cheats, steals power acting the innocent and bereaved victim as a posture, then winks at us, letting us in on the joke of her machinations of which she is most proud. For with Richard, it’s all about the journey to the crown, not the receiving of the power. Like others we have seen in recent years, once power is attained, she is loathe to keep it and struggles ineffectively and incompetently to maintain what all at court and the officials know she has obtained illegally and through horrible treachery. The parallels to Donald Trump, Gurira and O’Hara have made clear, even gestures of success as she points to the audience as Trump often does and gyrates with a fist pump. At this point in time, the hypocrisy becomes comical, yet Gurira manages to keep the humanity, working an incredible balance and tone via O’Hara’s direction and the ensembles’ magnificent work.
I found this above all to be amazing about Gurira’s performance. We watch enthralled as norm after norm is broken. But we are mesmerized because she doesn’t hesitate nor flinch by caving to hypocrisy and morality. It is only until the last scenes when a cavalcade of haunting spirits of kinsmen and once loyal subjects occupy her nightmares that overwhelming guilt reveals she has a conscience and thus, her blood is required to sacrifice herself as she has sacrificed others.
In Richard’s first speech, Gurira complains of the court that glories in peace, something she throws off because that is not her way of being. This first admission of flaws opens us up to hear more as she aligns herself with the deformity of war which better hides her deformity. It is no small consolation to her that peace and court parties and rejoicing show her up to be a social outcast to beauty, civility, and courtly manners. Thus, we deformed are encouraged to empathize with her as outcasts of royalty, not able to prove lovers, but as she embraces herself will prove herself to be a most incredible, hypnotic villain.
And strangely we marvel as she gleefully seduces her enemy Queen Anne (Ali Stroker) who attempts to kill her, though half-heartedly to instead becomes Richard’s wife seduced and bedded with vanity, though Richard has killed her father and husband. Richard amiably spreads self-hatred wherever he goes. Those he seduces to compromise their integrity, end up hating themselves for their weakness in allowing themselves to be duped, like Queen Anne, his brothers, Lord Hastings, Queen Elizabeth and others.
How is it possible that Gurira’s Richard is so disarming? Perhaps because there is no feeble intention. All is to Richard’s purpose; thus, he will not party, he will plot vengeance and death to suit his ambitious hunger for power. As Richard, Gurira with “innocent” convictions declaims will be done and we are mesmerized to note whether she does it. And indeed goodly servants of the kingdom (Lord Buckingham-Sanjit De Silva, Lord Stanley-Michael Potts, Lord Hastings-Ariel Shafir, Catesby Ratcliffe-Daniel J. Watts) assist Richard in his plotting, taking on his evil without compunction, acting like good dogs.
Of course we are reminded of the adage: evil flourishes when good men do nothing. Here, the once good men plot evil, infected by evil and the spoils promised. They fall under Richard’s spell and promises, but some of them end up dead. Richard’s loves are unreliable; the moment their loyalty seems wobbly, they are dispatched to hell or heaven which is a trap door that springs open in the stage floor billowing mists and clouds which one may interpret widely.
Like horrific dictator Adolf Hitler who declaimed in Mein Kampf what he purposed with the help of henchmen he rewarded, and like other despots whose clear-eyed intentions of massacre and genocide are propelled by justifications unstopped by guilt, people stood back and watched. It is incredible that leaders/enemies observing wickedness didn’t believe what these criminals and serial killers publicly said they would do. They didn’t take them seriously until it was too late. Indeed, oftentimes, the press and important political figures or royalty were on the side of the wicked, misinterpreting their actions precisely because the wicked were upfront and to the purpose (like Putin). They believed that the despot’s honesty assured they could be controlled. But as good people watched and hypocritically lied to themselves in allowing these, like Richard III to flourish, they destroyed themselves and thousands of others.
O’Hara’s attention to them is incredibly clear. His shepherding of the ensemble to relay it with great understanding is beyond breathtaking.
Thus, ironically O’Hara and Shakespeare cast the audience as citizens who are taken in and brainwashed by Richard’s mien and stance of confidence and unaffected presentment that she will succeed. We go along on the journey and follow her plotting and gaining results while sounding no alarm. Watching Gurira’s performance, one understands the imprints of bloody despots like Cuba’s “liberator” Fidel Castro and the “bloodless,” bullying machinations of failed politicos like Donald Trump. With brilliant cunning, charm and winning manipulations, such malevolents stun and disarm their prey, exploit and drain their energy, ply them with sweet poisonous promises, then toss them away as chaff to be destroyed after they’ve been bled dry of their use. And if they find that that their loyalty is waning, as Richard does with the admirable, obedient Hastings (the superb Ariel Shafir) then they reverse course and viciously attack without mercy.
Thus, by degrees we watch Richard revel in sickly brother’s (King Edward IV-Gregg Mozgala) downward fall into death as he further divides him from George who is thrown in the tower where eventually he and the Princes and others, including his wife Anne go before they are killed expediently by Richard’s lackeys. But not before Queen Margaret (Sharon Washington) excoriates all those who have killed and let blood run as she curses them with magnificence and majestic bearing. She does this in a rant that the audience applauded as Sharon Washington walked off, head held high as if to note, yes, what I declare will come to pass. Thus, Queen Margaret adjures that Queen Elizabeth will lose her sons to violence and like she, Margaret, will have lost husband, sons, crown, kingdom and be forced to live out her years in misery and mourning.
Queen Margaret saves the best for last. Richard shall die heavy in sin, unredeemed, unable to sleep, haunted by bloody deeds, seeing those killed in nightmares. Washington returns to continue her cursing diatribe in the second part of Richard III, and the audience thrilled to her speech which she pronounced with conviction. Of course her curses that all fear come to pass, despite Richard’s insults and references to her as a witch and a hag. Richard’s epithets don’t penetrate Margaret’s soul because she has endured so much misery in the loss of her husband, crown son, family. What are the slanders of a villain who all know to be a villain that is powerless to do anything against her?
Gurira’s incredible performance as the titular Richard III is one of the best I have seen. After her Richard gains the throne the paranoia and anger sets in and she wipes out more kinsmen and loyal Lords who she suspects of treason. It is a fascinating transformation from slinking deceiver to furious despot.
Of course the irony that Richard cannot be happy even after he has the crown because he is afraid he will lose it, becomes the obsession that takes him over and changes his character toward self-destruction. The journey of enjoyment has ended and now the hell, anger, fear and punishment of self and others blossoms evilly. As Richmond (Gregg Mozgala) threatens with growing armies, Richard has nightmares that frighten him more than when he commanded evil deeds awake. In Richard’s last speech, “There is no creature loves me, And if I die no soul will pity me” in which he attempts to rouse himself out of great despair at seeing the ghosts of those he killed who are coming for him in revenge, Guriara is magnificent. I found myself empathizing with this miserable creature who believed she could get away with nefarious deeds and not have her conscience convict her. Would these current despots of the world have such a conscience to convict them as Richard’s? Happy thought.
Robert O’Hara vision and astute guidance makes this an exciting and imminently watchable and glorious production with accompanying vibrant and stirring music and light. There is great humor in many of the scenes clarified by the pacing and delivery set up by the ensemble and director. The set design, royal gothic pointed arches fixed on the revolving turntable which reveals change of scene, time and place, wonderfully manifests the substance, mood and tone of the scene as well as reinforces the action. With the blood letting of war in the last moments of fighting, superbly stylized with just enough actors to represent the warring factions, the arches have veins of blood lines, ironic yet symbolic of the gore shed on the battlefield. In other scenes the arches turn blue, gold, various colors, the turntable spins as the actors are placed between. The sets and music that align with the action are spectacular because all cohere seamlessly.
The creatives who have explored O’Hara’s vision so masterfully are Myung Hee Cho (scenic design) Dede Ayite (costume design) Alex Jainchill (lighting design) Elisheba Ittoop (sound design and original music) Nikiya Mathis (hair and wig design) Teniece Divya Johnson/Jeremy Sample (fight directors) Neil Sprouse (director of artistic sign language–beautiful, poetic, effecting and relational hand movements) Byron Easley (movement director) Teniece Divya Johnson (intimacy director) Alexander Wylie (prop manager).
Check the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park website for details to this unforgettable production of Richard III. CLICK HERE