At the very start of his career, Stephen Frears was seen as part of a wave of exciting British filmmakers, many of whom often worked with publicly-owned broadcast companies: the BBC made films with Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh in their Play for Today series (1970-1984), before the latter went onto work with Channel 4, who even produced films with queer iconoclast Derek Jarman towards the end of his life. They also produced what’s arguably regarded as Frears’ most famous film, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and it seems those connections never faded for him. Most of his recent films have been partially funded by the BBC, though they truly speak to the reduced state of these institutions. It seems impossible to imagine a time when they would make something as bold, experimental, and challenging as Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989) — which reflected on the ongoing Troubles by showing only scenes of decontextualized violence — especially when looking at films as safe and empty as Frears’ recent run of Florence Foster Jenkins (2017), Victoria & Abdul (2019), and his latest, The Lost King.
It might seem wise of Frears to build up to this film’s premise, in which Phillipa Langley (Sally Hawkins) — the woman who will go on to discover the body of Richard III long after it was considered lost — speaks to the spirit, or perhaps just a hallucination, of the titular King (Harry Lloyd). At first the two only exchange looks, and then just a handful of words. But instead of keeping the film from feeling silly and compromising the sense of realism in this true-story narrative, the decision unintentionally results in a movie that’s dead on arrival. It stops it from reaching the level of cutesy, though it remains nonetheless stylized, and further sands the edges off of an already rather edgeless project. It’s easy, then, to let one’s eyes glaze over in the face of such commitment to inoffensiveness, but to an extent, that response lets it off the hook too easily, allowing the film’s ideas to slip through unchallenged. That’s not to suggest this is a conscious strategy on Frears’ part, though that level of cynicism would seem a good explanation as to how he ended up here, but still it makes its ideology more conspicuous by hiding it under a sense of flat, boring normality that the modern-day BBC works so hard to maintain.
The Lost King frames itself as feminist, with its opening titles reading: “Based on a true story — Her story.” And in its early scenes, Phillipa is shown missing opportunities at her unfulfilling advertising job because she’s looked down on as a woman, and especially as one entering middle age. Though another reason is because of her disability: she has ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), and often finds she must insist that it is a real condition, which of course later aligns her with Richard, when she sees his alleged hunched back used as a symbol for some inner deformity in Shakespeare’s famous play. This might all seem plenty nice and progressive, if gently so, but much of it plays into the tropes of “girlboss” feminism, in which feminism only exists to expand the same limiting boundaries in order to allow some women into them. It’s driven by the same fantasy of the individualistic outsider who comes in to bring innovation in a way that’s only possible under the alleged freedoms of capitalism; the exact kind of images that Steve Jobs and Elon Musk worked so hard to cultivate.
This isn’t to say that Phillipa didn’t face real institutional opposition. The film’s presentation of the University of Leicester, and the way that they stole credit for the dig that Phillipa organized and led, has been controversial, but mostly with those who are portrayed, some of whom have threatened to sue. But Phillipa wasn’t put on the panel of the first and most important press conference — as it was the one that all the press attended, where the history was written — for the discovery of the body, and was instead left only to function as the last of thirteen speakers. Frears takes pains to make a point of comparing a university to a corporation, which rings increasingly true as they move ever further from a necessary part of any education. But criticism of capitalism being subsumed into the larger capitalist mythology is hardly new, and in fact, is a core precept of this idea of the innovator: for an individual to be needed to bring life back to a company, it must assume that those structures naturally fade into emptiness.
It’s interesting that, in real life, Phillipa founded the Scottish branch of the Richard III society, while in the film, she only comes across a much smaller Edinburgh branch. But either way, these seven or so outsiders don’t become a group in which Phillipa finds community, but are instead simply supporters to rally around her. Their only contributions to the “Looking for Richard” project are choosing between two potential names and helping to find funding for Phillipa’s bold vision. That vision isn’t solely driven by her extensive knowledge, however, but by something far stranger, which reveals, quite nakedly, the magical thinking within the idea of the visionary: her powerful intuition. When she finds herself standing in the car park, where she will later find Richard buried beneath, and before she has any reason to believe that he could be there, she seems to be able to feel him.
This also connects to the film’s rather bizarre royalism, passively promoting the notion that royalty is a position both innate and deeply, almost spiritually, meaningful. Phillipa doesn’t just want to find Richard, she wants to redeem him: to restore his rightful nobility after his alleged disability, amongst other things, led to him being seen as a usurper. When arguing with a lecturer about him, she says that actually, “he brought the country the strong leadership it needed.” In fact, a large conflict in the film’s latter half, once the body has been discovered, is whether or not it will be buried in a coffin with a royal crest, to which this writer humbly responds: who cares. But royalism runs so deep in the mind of Frears — and based on reactions to the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, the British public at large — that he can’t see the blatant contradictions. These include the film’s final scenes, which contrast Phillipa giving a talk to a small school of girls with a cross cut of the university usurpers who are mingling amongst the big wigs, the out-of-touch elites. But if royalty is so honored, then it can’t be power as such that’s the problem. These elites can only be less worthy of respect because they aren’t imbued with the same divine rights as kings and queens.
Phillipa starts her speech by saying that she’s going to tell a story “about a person who was judged unfairly in life, and never given the opportunity to show their true potential,” which is obviously supposed to reflect and draw parallels between herself and Richard. Though if that could be said to be true of her, at least to some extent, it’s a truly absurd thing to say about a literal king. In The Lost King’s final moments, Frears shows the crest on Richard’s coffin, the king that was restored to his rightful position, and Phillipa is given the happiest ending the film can imagine, justifying her in a way far beyond what any class could offer: she is given an MBE, an honor awarded by the Queen herself.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 12.