By Roshan Chandy
Stephen Frears is a little too serious for this spectacularly silly exhumation comedy about Richard III’s bones.
Given he has spent a large part of his seventysomething career as a connoisseur of British Royal cinema, it’s easy to forget Stephen Frears is one of the most versatile and generally diverse filmmakers in Britain. Not just in genre which range from period fare such as Dangerous Laisons to stripped-down London Boulevardism like Dirty Pretty Things (2002), but also in medium. Over the last 20 years, he’s divided his time between films such as The Queen (2006) and TV masterpieces such as The Deal (2003) which charted the disastrous Shakespearean, Prince and Pauper pact between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and featured career-best performances from Michael Sheen and a very fat-figured David Morrissey.
The Lost King (2022) is a film of the moment. It arrives just weeks after Buckingham Palace issued the news that Queen Elizabeth II, protector of the Commonwealth, had died at the age of 93. It’s also something of an exhumation project detailing a very recent and very royal part of British history – the discovery of King Richard III’s bones in a Leicester car park.
Frears’ latest royal film is his most directorially and cinematic adventurous in years. If viewers have traditionally found his royal fare a tad televisual, that complaint can hardly be leveled at The Lost King which deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s quite spectacular the way he takes inanimate objects, homes in on them and then maximizes the scope and spectacle of them by widening the frame. He turns the digging up and exhumation of Richard’s tomb by a bunch of 4X4 diggers into a part Keatonesque absurdist and slapstick comedy and Sly n’ Arnie-style Expendables action sequence.
Beyond the diversity of genres at play here in almost Cowardian fashion, Frears experiments with both horror and whodunnit murder mystery under the trappings of an Ealing-lite comedy. The concept involving an Edinburgh historian (played magically by Sally Hawkins) seeing visions of an undead King Richard is as pants and stupid as Monty Python, but Frears films it in the manner of a Hammer Horror production or old-fashioned English ghost story. You almost expect Daniel Radcliffe to show up as he did in James Watkins’ excellent 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black or have Christopher Lee show up as Dracula.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is his most thematically ambitious and stylistically adventurous in years. I’ve often felt this French composer isn’t the most musically diverse. His scores for big blockbusters like Godzilla (2014) very much feel Hans Zimmer-lite. But here he conjures up quite the musical spectacle and appeal. I loved the staccatos and the bum notes between the piano chords which create very much the aura and mystery of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple’s latest whodunnit. It’s certainly a very Christie-esque movie.
Then there’s the performances and I love Sally Hawkins in pretty much everything despite the fact she always plays the unconventional, batty outsider in everything she does. She was so fantastic 14 years ago in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008) and continues to out-quirk me in both Oscar-nominated and Oscar-robbed affairs such as Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2018) and Craig Roberts’ Eternal Beauty (2020).
This is very much a double act between a more conventional Sally Hawkins performance and an unconventional one. She’s playing a historian which is hardly the greatest stretch for her or anyone’s career. It’s more of the kind of safe bet she brought to the mother role in the movie Paddington (2014).
But Hawkins has such fabulous fish lips and dotty eyes that she makes even the most everywoman kind of role quite extraordinary. The surrealism of the concept involving the ghost of Richard III wraps itself quite surreally around Sally Hawkins’ quite surreal facial features. I will say this is one of her best performances – a combination of Silly Sally and Serious Sally. One for the pub quiz arguments of times she was robbed a BAFTA or even an Oscar.
It’s quite a silly film – stupid really given it involves a car park, Leicester and Harry Lloyd in a King’s hat. I wondered often what a less conventional filmmaker like Yorgos Lanthimos would have made of it. I absolutely loved what he did with The Favourite (2019) which traded period frocks for fish eye lenses and corsets and corduroys of Machiavellian power play and duck races. At times, Frears, although diverse on the genre and medium front, seems a little too solemn, serious and po-faced of a filmmaker to tackle a concept, comedy even quite so absurd.
I will say, however, as much as Leicester University will hate it and me for saying it, I love how this movie celebrates modern Leicester in all its more BAME-than-White diversity and modernist architectural wonders. Leicester is such an underrated city; derided by many of my closest confidantes as a “s**thole” and then some. But it’s really beautiful in that way only modern Birmingham can compete with its mix of shopping malls, sea-life centres and chocolate factories.
There are some fabulous Leicester locations in this movie – a bucket list of trinkets and treats ranging from the pretty train station to the Grand Central-esque Highcross Centre. I really feel like this movie might be Leicester’s Golden Ticket or Magic Carpet and give it the culture boost and funds it needs when it comes to proving it’s got history that matches Nottingham. As someone who’s visited Richard III’s bones there, I can confirm it’s a much more cultured and historical city than people give it credit for – a Bosworth battlefield of every culture in the world.
The Lost King celebrates, champions and commemorates everything Leicester. It’s a bit too serious for its own good and could have done with a more adventurous filmmaker on the stylistic front. What would Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam have made of it? But it’s absolutely the film of the moment. One of those great British underdog stories with more than a share of Ealing comedy in its bum-bag. Sally Hawkins delivers a fish-faced performance of staggering unconventional beauty. Steve Coogan is great too as he always is as her very lovely husband. But the star is Leicester which is a greater city than anyone gives it credit for. God Save the King!