Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Lost King opens this weekend at SIFF Cinema Uptown and various places.
In his 2021 book A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors, David Thomson spends a somewhat unlikely amount of time—given the other directors clamoring for attention in a relatively concise survey—on Stephen Frears, the Englishman whose prolific career tends toward the “inspired journeyman” category, with notable high points (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things) that go well beyond that level. Thomson gets into a groove, finding just what makes Frears click, or sometimes not click: “It’s as if he’s saying, Well, really filmmaking is just aptitude or willingness, a certain kind of optimism, instead of that bigger thing, art or auteurship….It’s not easy to look at his work and identify a vision or a preoccupation—beyond wanting to make entertaining pictures. Fair enough: he is a model of wry common sense, good nature, and doing his best by people, and that kindness exists in most of his work.”
That quality in Frears, of simply being a director, not an artiste who imposes his vision but a craftsman who guides but stays out of the way, is a rare thing. Art would be no fun without pretentiousness, but we can value the unpretentious director, too. (I once witnessed the unpretentiousness when I interviewed Frears in a hotel room, where he padded out from his bedroom in bare feet, perfectly comfortable to spend the hour’s conversation unshod. Granted, that kind of gesture might be pretentious in some people, but in this case—no.) The range in Frears’ work can go from very sharp indeed to rather comfortable, and his latest, The Lost King, sits in the middle.
It’s based on a true story (with, apparently, some sizable alterations) about a single mom/amateur historian, Philippa Langley, who spearheaded an effort to dig around in a parking lot for the bones of Richard III—an unlikely venture that actually succeeded, in 2012. Frears reunites with the screenwriters of Philomena, Steven Coogan and Jeff Pope, but the film has a lighter touch than that one, appropriately. At first glance, and probably at second glance, The Lost King will recall many other whimsical British comedy-dramas, especially about people overcoming odds to persevere; in this case, Langley must outpoint not only the stuffy academics (generally male) who condescend to her ideas, but also a disability, chronic fatigue, which makes her especially simpatico with a king whose own physical differences—possibly exaggerated by Shakespeare—are a matter of debate among historians. She also has imagined conversations with Richard himself (Harry Lloyd), a tactic that could prove tiresome.
For a few reasons, I found it easy to like The Lost King. Sally Hawkins is ideal casting as Langley—the actress is so grounded, so averse to audience-pandering, she navigates the script’s manufactured showdowns and makes you believe in this character’s eccentric pluck. The fact that she is physically tiny compared to the university gatekeepers (Mark Addy among them) is an added bonus. Coogan has written himself an admirably peripheral role, as Langley’s superficial but genial ex-husband, and this relationship is a nicely unusual stroke.
All of these things are in Frears’ wheelhouse, and so is the film’s underdog, chip-on-its-shoulder attitude (also the bread and butter of Coogan’s comedy). This is a script that might easily have given itself over to quirk, and coasted by on a few David and Goliath emotional beats, but this is a case where the Frears touch might be the difference-maker. An invisible director, maybe, but when the modest pleasures of a movie like this are so well managed, you can appreciate the usefulness of his barefoot way.
March 24, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.