Sally Hawkins in "The Lost KIng."

Sally Hawkins in "The Lost KIng." Credit: IFC Films/Everett Collection

PLOT An amateur historian searches for the remains of King Richard III.

CAST Sally Hawkins, Steve Coogan, Harry Lloyd

RATED PG-13 (some adult talk)


WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE A true story, potentially inspirational but mostly just peculiar.

“The Lost King” re-teams one of England’s finest directors, Stephen Frears, with one of its sharpest comedic minds, Steve Coogan. Their last effort, the drama “Philomena,” was a surprise hit, earning Oscar nods for co-writers Coogan and Jeff Pope, and for lead actress Judi Dench as a real-life woman whose search for her lost son uncovers a dark national secret. “The Lost King” follows a similar template, but it’s more quirky, less assured and doesn’t strike the same emotional chords.

Frears (“The Queen”) has tapped another top-shelf actor, Sally Hawkins, to play another real figure, Philippa Langley, a dissatisfied office worker with chronic fatigue syndrome. After attending a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” — the play that cast the 15th-century king as a hunchback, usurper and murderer — Philippa becomes convinced that he’s a misunderstood figure whose reputation could be restored if she could somehow locate his long-lost remains. Self-guided research leads her to a nondescript parking lot in Leicester, but it won’t be easy funding an excavation based on little more than — well, a hunch. Standing in her way are hidebound politicos and academics who initially dismiss her as an overemotional kook, only to swoop in later and claim credit for her work.

A couple of problems plague this potentially engaging underdog story. One is Philippa’s relationship with her ex-husband (a wonderfully wry Coogan), who clearly still loves her and sacrifices a great deal to support her. He cares for their two boys as well, and in return gets pretty much nothing. The domestic scenes are clearly meant to endear us to Philippa, but they inadvertently present her as self-obsessed and ungrateful.

In another misstep, the actor who played Richard III on the stage begins popping up as the king’s ghost, regally garbed in robe and crown, to coax Philippa forward.It’s a clever conceit (Harry Lloyd plays both roles), but the film can’t decide how to handle it. The effect isn’t spooky or comedic or surreal; most of the time, Philippa just seems to be talking to some guy in a costume.

“The Lost King” touches on some fairly deep ideas — that history can be wrong, that fiction can alter facts, that the truth belongs to those in power — but only glancingly. It’s Richard who tells Philippa, rather oddly: “You know the truth. Nothing else matters.” If that were so, there’d be little point in her mission, or in telling her story.

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