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'The Lost King' Review

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March 21, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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This review was originally published at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release the film in theaters on March 24.

2013's Philomena was the stealth contender of that year's Oscar race as it slowly built up a head of steam from its Venice and Toronto International Film Festival screenings. Judi Dench seemed to be the only initial likely contender from the creative team, who was ready to get out of her "slump" after receiving six acting nominations between 1997 and 2006. Lo and behold, the film overperformed with additional nods for Best Original Score (coming at a time when Alexandre Desplat couldn't be kept out of the Oscar mix), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. The nominations were the victory, with the film expectedly going home empty-handed after that.

Now ten years later (or nine if you saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival as I did, or live in the United Kingdom, where it was released back in October), the entire creative team of director Stephen Frears, co-writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and composer Desplat, have reunited for another history lesson centering around forgotten figures. But while Philomena shined a light on the recent past with a mother in search of her lost son, The Lost King aptly follows a woman on her quest to unearth the nearly 700-year-old remains of Richard III. Substituting for Judi Dench is Sally Hawkins, with Coogan continuing as the supportive co-star along the journey.

Little known to much of the non-literary world, including Philippa Langley (Hawkins), is that Shakespeare's titular play about King Richard III is one of the biggest hit pieces ever set on the stage. Unlike the bloodlust and madness The Bard infused within his tragic tale, Richard's reign was filled with more modestly good occurrences, such as implementing the "innocent until proven guilty" legal system, and the more widespread adoption of the printing press. These accomplishments don't merit his status as one of the best in the history of the monarchy, but it also makes his shameful legacy look extremely unfair compared to other rulers. As she digs deeper down the rabbit hole of conflicting theories about Richard's life, Philippa stumbles upon a fan club whose main goal is the uplifting of his name, which would be accomplished by the finding of his lost remains and a royal burial with a coat of arms.

Frears has never had a distinct style as a director, which may be why the presenter at TIFF confused his filmography with that of fellow countrymen Tom Hooper. But while Hooper's quirks may have won him Best Director and Best Picture for The King's Speech, they've also landed him in director's jail for Cats, where he still resides to this day. 

His lack of gimmicks has allowed him to be steady-as-she-goes for over thirty years now, never being constrained to a single genre or delivering a dud so monstrous that the ship runs off course. The Lost King, however, may have needed a little more personality from the person in the director's chair, as the "excitement" it tries to produce barely registers. Only out-and-proud history nuts (like me) will find much to walk away with, even if Desplat's overdone thriller-esque score is trying its best to lift up the pace.

Still, the quiet nature of Frears' work matches Hawkins, who does well to exude a confident nature in the face of many obstacles, which include chronic fatigue syndrome and the dismissal of her search by several people. The "villains" of this story come off a bit cartoonish, but they seem a bit more believable when compared to the moments when Philippa is greeted by the ghost of Richard III.

The Lost King is a by-the-numbers semi-pleasant British piece, directed and acted with a slight amount of class and wit. It's by no means a must-see, but it's just charming enough to meet the standards of all those involved.

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