Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Lost King (2022).

It opens with a familiar line of text.  "Based on a true story".  Right away, you know it's going to be one of those films.  The history of cinema doesn't want for lack of any biographical pictures.  It's a veritable cottage industry unto itself.  It's a select sub-genre whose origins seem to reach as far back as the beginning of the medium itself.  The first major (if not initial) biopic was Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, way back in 1928.  It was a silent film, which means its an acquired taste these days.  It also went on to become one of cinema's first great blockbusters, a low-key version of Cecil B. DeMille before he was even a name.  Dreyer's film was also a first in another way.  It is just possible that this film marks the beginning of the long, infamous tradition of the clash between filmmakers and scholars over the accuracy of historical persons and events in an artistic medium.  There might be one or two elements of the subject the Dreyer film got wrong, for instance.  More than a few viewers were happy to point this out, and things have carried on in such a vein ever since.  Which means the same issue of being "True to Life" is bound to plague Stephen Frears' production of The Lost King.  It's story does center on a Maid, of sorts, but not of Orleans.  After being given proper warning from the "True Story" tag, we're given an extra bit of information from the opening credits.

The film, we're told, is not just based on a true story.  It's also "Her Story".  So long as we're playing the game of Art vs History, it might help to point out that even this initial statement counts as an example of "true so far as it goes".  Or rather "true" for a given amount of true.  In the strictest sense, what we're dealing with here is the story of a Maiden and a King, and the way the two somehow found each other.  That is still not quite the whole truth, however.  For you see, there is a third player in the make-believe dramatization of history that's about to unfold.  He's always hanging about in the wings of the film's narrative, always waiting, perhaps, for his own say on things.  He even gets name dropped more than once or twice, here and there.  However, in order to get the full picture, we have to take things in their proper order.  That means knowing when to start at the proper beginning of the whole affair.

The Story.   

If nothing important happened, then I'm not sure you'd be able to pick someone like Phillipa Langley (Sally Hawkins) out of a crowd.  She doesn't strike you as the type of person that extraordinary events happen to.  Her job is that of an employee at one of those marketing firms whose name you forget about the moment you here it.  She's a marketing officer who makes her home in Edinburgh.  She's got two children of her own, Max (Adam Robb), and Raife (Benjamin Scanlon).  Her marriage with her husband John (Steve Coogan) ended not too long ago, however.  Even here the situation is one of those little domestic dramas that can't even bother to live up to the title.  Things just didn't work out, that's all.  No more or less.  There's not much else to talk about, really.  Phillipa's life consists mainly of one drudge through the working day after another.  She gets up in the morning, packs the kids off to school, goes to her office, and tries to pretend she's busy with actual work while getting paid a pittance for it.  She picks up her kids, goes home, dinner, bed, and start all over again.  She's got Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, however it doesn't interfere with her work and life in general.  Nor does it keep her from being able to raise her two kids on her own.  There's no legitimate reason for her employer to pass her over for a well-earned promotion.  So he does it anyway.

That's about the point where her life trajectory has taken her, more or less.  Phillipa Langley is, in short, just one of life's anonymous cubicle dwellers.  Just another face you pass by pure chance on the nine to five routes, nothing more.  To repeat, someone like her wouldn't be worth remarking about if something incredible hadn't happened.  In Phillipa's case, it all started with a mandatory night at the theater.  Somehow she'd gotten roped into having to attending a local repertory company's production of Richard III.  It wasn't even one of the better productions of the story, if we're being honest.  It's one of those efforts where 14th century England is rendered in those cheap, modernist, almost Sci-Fi looking approaches that extends to almost everybody's wardrobe.  Like there wasn't enough in the budget to afford the appropriate costumes, so the final result looks as if history has wandered into a bad production of Guardians of the Galaxy.  The only actor who looks like he even belongs in the whole damn thing is Pete (Harry Lloyd), the actor tasked with bringing Richard to life.  For whatever reason, whether it's the performance of the lead actor, or the ever-important quality of the writing, a funny thing sort of happens to Phillipa as she listens to the words, and takes in the portrayal of the King.

She surprised to find her heart going out to the disabled protagonist at the heart of the play.  This reaction is even more surprising, considering that King Richard is the kind of monarch that even real historians regard as one of life's clear-cut villains.  A usurper who schemed his way onto the throne of England, and almost lead the country to ruin with his power mad plots for domination.  It was only at the "Battle" of Bosworth Field that Richard's reign of tyranny came to an end, and the last of the Middle Ages with it.  In spite of all these established facts, Phillipa's heart winds up going out to the former hunchbacked King.  She seems self-possessed enough to realize that a lot of it might just be nothing more than one person with a physical handicap recognizing and finding a sense of solace in the plight of another.  However, (perhaps to her own surprise) she also begins to wonder if there could be more to the usurper king's story than history is aware of.  It's this brief moment of posthumous shared sympathy between one disability sufferer to another that gets the whole thing started, strange as it may sound.

At first, Phillipa can't seem to get the figure of Richard out of her mind.  His story, both real and imaginary, occupies her thoughts as she goes about her daily routine.  She starts buying books that tell of the monarch's life and times, and this passion soon grows into more of an obsession.  The transformation from idle hobby to consuming interest seems to come the moment when Phillipa begins to see or perhaps just imagine the actual King Richard (played by Lloyd again) hanging about wherever she goes.  She'll be walking to the store and she'll catch glimpses of him standing in the sidewalk in front of her as she makes her way towards him.  Or else she'll see the King glancing at her from across the way, in the windows of shop markets or at the openings of alleyways.  Whenever Phillipa catches glimpses of this figure, a few things always remain constant.  This version of Richard isn't the gnarled and twisted boogeyman of the English popular imagination.  Instead, this King seems to have a more regal bearing, standing up straight and proud, yet he has a kind and sympathetic look in his eye.

He's always able to pick Phillipa out wherever she is, and whenever she sees him, Phillipa can't shake the hopeful, imploring expression he seems to give her whenever they meet.  At last, one night, when she sees him hanging outside in front of her house, Phillipa allows herself to get out of bed, and confront this "apparition".  She asks him what he wants, why is he visiting her, and most important of all, was he really as great a monster as history says?  The figure never answers any of these questions, of course.  He just keeps giving her that kind, imploring look, like he's desperate to ask this unextraordinary, unassuming Edinburgh girl a favor, except he's too darn shy to ask it outright.  The interesting part is that as far as Phillipa's concerned, it's almost like he doesn't have to.  At last, with her resolve set she makes what most of us have no choice except to consider a fool's risk.  She joins the local Edinburgh chapter of the Richard III Society, which is one thing.  Then she quits her day job in order to devote all her time to proving that the protagonist of Shakespeare's play wasn't a villainous usurper, and was instead, a good and just King of England.  Which is something else altogether. 

To say that Phillipa's friends and family regard this move as a bad idea is a bit like the saying the launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle went a little bit wrong.  The crash and burn in Phillipa's case may not be as Earth shattering, yet it's the fear everyone around her has, as they try to dissuade her from taking such drastic measures.  She won't be turned aside, as things turn out.  Phillipa turns out to be the kind of woman who, once she manages to get her sights set on a goal that's important to her, will then dig in with the tenacity of a well-trained bulldog latching onto a target.  If nothing else were to happen, you'd still have to give her an A for effort.  Her dedication is so admirable that even her ex-husband (of all people) decides to move back in so that she'll have both the funds, and get to keep a roof under the heads of both her and their children.  With this steady foundation in place, Phil sets out to ask for help in tracking down the remains of King Richard.  Two important allies that she makes in this endeavor are medieval historian Richard Ashdown-Hill (James Fleet), and Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), head of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services Department.  One of them is a willing participant from the very start.  The other has to be convinced by several interlocking factors in order to join.

Under Phillipa's guidance, they set their sights on an otherwise unassuming car park by the name of Grey Friars, located in the middle of Leicester town.  There's one area in particular that Phillipa has zeroed in on.  In the old tales of buried treasure it's usually an X that marks the spot.  In this case it's not an X.  It's an R.  You can see the letter itself, plain as day.  It's washed out and faded a bit with years of age and constant use, however it's still perfectly legible.  The R stands for Reserved, as in the special parking spaces reserved either for special appointments, or else for (ironically enough given Phil's and Richard's medical history) handicap accessibility.  Perhaps because of all these associations swirling about and gathering together in her mind, Phillipa wants them to start digging there.  She has a hunch that simple painted R means something.  That perhaps it contains answers about Richard the Third.

Conclusion: The King and the Maiden: A Surprisingly True Story.   

I went through a lot of back and forth with myself on how write the summary just above.  Pretty much all of it stemmed from the age old question that seems baked into movies like this.  It's gotten to the point where the problem might just require its own label, as a good shorthand for the dilemma any critic finds themselves in when trying to tackle subject matter like this.  I think I'll call it the Amadeus Paradox.  It's when you're trying to take in any work of cinematic drama that claims to have a basis in real life history.  That's when the challenge always becomes the question of separating fact from fiction.  You have to do it in a way that strikes a very delicate balance.  The trick is to be true to the facts of the actual, historical record, while also giving the potential Art of the fiction its due.  Hence the paradox, and I think that Amadeus, a film that has managed to achieve a surprising amount of pop-culture resonance, stands as kind of like the benchmark for the challenge of historical dramas.

A film like Stephen Frears The Lost King is an example that fits in well with this paradoxical paradigm.  It's entire setup is not just based on something that happened in real life.  It was something very recent, that turned out to be one of those events with a respectable amount of national importance.  These are the facts.  It turns out there really is a Phillipa Langley, and she is the woman who discovered the remains of King Richard III.  The monarch's remains were indeed bulldozed over and hidden away underneath the concrete of a local Leicester parking lot.  And he was discovered lying underneath a good chunk of modern day concrete with a big white letter R painted over the exact same plot that was once used to house former royalty.  I almost want to say there's got to be some sort of parabolic significance to the whole thing, if that's how it turns out, anyway.  It's like we've stumbled upon a moment when history itself turns into the contents of a children's storybook.  You've a plucky and intrepid protagonist with a likable personality pressing on in the face of adversity in order to find a hidden treasure.  Even the discovery itself adheres to fairy tale formula with an X marked burial spot.

It's little wonder then that sooner or later someone like Frears would think this could make for a pretty solid movie.  It's one of those odd moments when real life seems willing to hand you a script more or less ready made, all wrapped up in a bow, an everything.  In terms of its basic outline, and plot beats, the movie can be said to remain true enough so far as it can to the historical record.  Which means, of course, that there are one or two elements of the narrative that distort the facts to suit the demands of the three-act drama structure.  The movie version of Phillipa is portrayed as joining the Edinburgh Ricardian Society as a spur-of-the-moment decision, something she just throws herself into in the heat of enthusiasm for her newfound subject.  In real life, however, this was never the case.  In fact, for the actual Ms. Langley, everything to do with King Richard came at a natural, gradual, step-at-a-time pace.  The true story began all the way back in 1998, when Langley picked up a book written in 1955 by Paul Murray Kendall.  It was perhaps among the first works of scholarship to treat Richard as a human being, rather than as just a villain in a play.  And it is just here where history itself becomes like a mist.

So far as I've been able to find out, based on what Langley has to tell, it was the reading of Kendall's book that sparked her interest in trying to salvage the King's reputation.  What this account cannot tell us is what, if anything, in turn, inspired her to pick up the 55 study text.  For all I or anyone else will ever known, it could very well have been the chance encounter with the more famous Renaissance play.  The fact of the matter is I am unable to say with anything like definitive proof.  At this point, all I've just offered on this bit, at least, is nothing less than pure speculation.  What is verifiable is that the real Phillipa was inspired to search out and become a member of the Edinburgh Ricardians.  This happened as far back as at or about 2004 to 5, more or less, however.  It was a lifelong project of enthusiasm, however, it was never a mad dash from one point to the other, as the film's pacing makes it out to be.  In addition, the real Ashdown-Hill was able to demonstrate conclusive evidence that Richard's remains were never dumped into a local river known as the Soar at the same time as Langley began her studies.  With all these caveats in mind, the film still manages to get a lot of things right.        

Perhaps the most surprising thing that Frears is able to nail down well is the character of Phillipa herself.  While it's true some aspects of the scholar's real life are compressed for the sake of dramatic presentation, the one aspect of reality that both the director and actress Sally Hawkins manage to capture well is the sense of Langley's actual personality.  It's the one element of reality that Frears manages to turn into the constant keynote that is able to carry the picture from start to finish.  In life, as on the screen, Langley conveys this air of someone who is determined to prove to others that she can handle herself well with the minimum of assistance.  Go and hunt down any available footage of the real Phillipa, and you'll see a woman with this almost stoic sense self-awareness.  She's polite, kind, soft-spoken.  Yet there's also this quiet, insistent, admirable stubborn streak to her nature.  If she knows what she wants, then she'll do her best to achieve her goals.  The underlying core of everything she does is to make others realize that she is not some kind of cripple, or helpless damsel in need of rescue.

Yes, she suffers from chronic fatigue.  It's the kind of thing that flairs up whenever she gets excited about or over something.  However, it is never severe, and it doesn't impair her ability to function normally in the workaday world.  This is something the real Langley knows, and yet it's also clear that she always chafes under the fear of being belittled and treated as a kind of inferior by anyone who would use her handicap against her as an excuse to discriminate based on the idea that she's not just a woman, but a crippled one into the bargain.  Neither her gender, nor her actual symptoms may count as any legitimate strike.  The sad part is none of these facts will deter those who are determined to treat her as someone less than a human being.  This is the central heart of the real historian's character, and it serves as the underlying main theme of the King Richard excavation as it played out in real life.  Go and watch any documentary of the actual dig and you'll see the genuine Phillipa holding her own in the face of adversity.  There are a number of telling moments in the footage I've seen that say a great deal without much in the way of any big scenes of dramatic dialogue.

The first comes from when the skeleton under the car park is having his bones x-rayed by forensics.  The reconstruction of the human frame reveals that Richard did in fact have a lopsided, curved spine.  This means the King was to an extent, as the play has it, "Rudely stamped...Curtailed of...fair proportion.  Cheated of feature by dissembling nature.  Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up".  It's a moment that the real Langley took rather hard.  As it spoiled at least a part of her dreams.  One of the core components of her campaign to rehabilitate Richard's popular image was that he was never any kind of hunchback.  The revelation that he was seems to have taken a blow to her sense of self-worth.  She wanted to prove that he was better than her.  And so history goes and proves that he's was just as prone to the same jeers and mockery that she has to face on a daily basis.  The shock of this is so much for her that there is actual footage of her having to beg off for a moment and collect herself in the halls outside of the forensics lab.  She even has to be comforted and given a pep talk by the documentarian who is filming the whole thing.  There are at least two consolations for her.  One is that she is still able to prove that Richard was no royal usurper.

The second one, however, might just be the most important.  That at leas she now has a greater sense of kinship with a fellow handicapable.  It's one of those real life grace notes that probably can't sound like much of anything to someone on the outside of the experience.  To those with "inside information", however, it can sometimes mean the whole gosh damned world.  For whatever reason, I can't just bring myself to dismiss that sort of thing as cold comfort for change.  Not when an actual of consolation can be marked as present.  The second major event that happened during to actual dig came as the skeleton of the former King of England was being packed away off to forensics for the first time.  The monarch was leaving his last resting place for the first time in approximately 527 years.  His death is often claimed as the end of the Middle Ages.  We've inhabited several different worlds since then, and now here's this relic from the time of Chaucer and Dante, "in once more, back again".  Time present somehow catching up to time past.  As Richard is being packed up (all of English royalty now crammed into the confines of a package the size of a flower box) Langley is seen on camera making one simple request.  She'd like to see the remains draped in the British Royal Flag, the one in reds and blues, with lions and unicorns all over it.  Some protest they still don't know if it's even the genuine article or not.

Phillipa remains insistent, however.  So, after the briefest moments of hesitation, they agree, and the King is allowed to go to his exams with at least something of his old pomp and majesty restored.  Looking at that whole scene play out in real life, from the perspective of an American who was always taught never to bow down to monarchy, it's interesting, is perhaps all I can say.  It kind of makes you wonder about the values that some civilizations hold, how they are formed, and what happens to make them change over time.  In any case, the point here is that these are all aspect of the real history that Frears was able to do a good job of capturing on screen.  Hawkins version of Phillipa manages to capture that same sense of determined yet vulnerable strength that carried the real scholar through to victory.  They never bother to dramatize the two real life moments mentioned just above, and I think the reason for that is Frears and company were worried about the audience's suspension of disbelief.  Which raises an interesting conundrum.  What can you do when real life starts to act like a gosh damned storybook?  The best answer I've got for that is to hope you're not one of those nameless extras that gets gunned down by the bad guys in the middle of the action.  The good news is that in life and fiction, Phillipa is the main character of her own story, and Frears and his team are able to tell it well.

That just leaves us with one of two controversies to discuss.  The first concerns events brought up by the film itself.  The second has to do with that third man in the drama mentioned earlier.  At the heart of the first controversy lies the figure of Richard Taylor.  He's pretty much the closest thing the film has to an antagonist.  He's skeptical of Phillipa's claims the moment he is on-screen.  He never does anything to help or otherwise provide support for the dig, and when the big discovery is made, he tries everything in his power to exclude Langley from her own success.  By the end of the film, both Taylor and Langley are engaged in a bitter feud, with Phillipa trying to make sure her achievements are recognized, while Taylor is focused on making it look like all the success in the venture is owed to no more than the team at the University of Leicester.  Taylor explains the motivations for all his actions when he explains in an aside to Richard Buckley that the University isn't a center for education and learning, but is instead nothing more than a business, and he was always hired to do little else than make sure its account books are always running as much in the black as humanly possible.

The figure of Taylor and his portrayal have become the closest thing to a behind-the-scenes controversy that the film has to its reputation, with Taylor and his feud with Langley being a very true-to-life detail.  The real Phillipa has gone on record with claims that she was sidelined when the discovery of the King's remains were made public.  Going so far as to point out that her name was deliberately kept off the dig's exhumation license even though the paperwork clearly shows her as their client.  Taylor and the University then compounded their guilt by letting this desire for all the glory get them entangled in a legal dispute with the Plantagenet Alliance, in yet another legal feud that lasted for several years, and proved to be of more cost than it was worth (web).  From what I am able to tell on my own, it seems as if all of the legal right was on Phillipa's side, while Taylor and the University should have just played their hand fair and square, thus being able to acquire an even greater level of prestige to their name by sharing the glory with Langley in the first place, with no strings attached.  Instead, the college's authorities seem to have dug an unnecessary pit for themselves, and that error is now being compounded, with Taylor threatening legal action over how he was portrayed in this film.

It's a series of useless gestures motivated by greed, and perhaps even worse, the idea that someone like Phillipa Langley is less than deserving of praise and acknowledgement due to both her gender, as well as her handicap.  There is nothing either objective, or academically respectable to these maneuvers.  As long as the University of Leicester and its representatives keep up this behavior, they deserve to lose as much face and skin in the game as possible.  Aside from all this, however, remains the third and largely unspoken subject in this story.  There's one more character in back of Phillipa Langley's search for Richard III.  He's been there almost from the beginning, while also managing to get sidelined in his own right as the drama of history unfolded.  Despite this, he was always still there, hiding just off in the wings.  Everyone still has a kind of passing, common familiarity with him, and a great deal of his writing has entered our common lexicon.  The third man I am talking about is of course, none other than William Shakespeare himself.  While the Bard of Avon is never treated as a villain himself, both fact and fiction do make the valid case that his portrayal of Richard was based on misinformation.

The punchline worth pointing out in all this is that it is just possible to claim this is a fact that perhaps even Shakespeare himself was aware of, and that his own thoughts pertaining to matters of royalty were a lot less cut and dried than plays like Richard or The Henriad cycle might lead you to think.  To start with, ask yourself this question.  What is the main picture that Shakespeare paints of government, royalty, and monarchy in general?  While I can't speak for others on this, my own observations lead me to just one conclusion.  The vast majority of the plays present a very skeptical image of rulers and monarchy on the whole.  From leaders such as Claudius (Hamlet), Brutus or Cassius (Julius Caesar), or Lady Macbeth and her doomed husband.  To those more indirect schemers who bring about disorder while preferring to stay hid in the shadows, like Iago from Othello, or Malvolio from Twelfth Night.  Even in the case of lesser known names from the Bard's rogues gallery such as Angelo in Measure for Measure and the title character of the often overlooked play Richard II, all of the compiled evidence goes together to paint the picture of an artist with a very dim view of the ruling classes overall.

In fact, this aura of skepticism toward authority figures who wield their power over others in unlawful ways tends to be regarded by both scholars and casual fans as one of the keynotes of Shakespeare's artistry.  It's kind of what he's known best for, in other words.  A lot of the reason for that seems to be the way his writings have of tapping into the ever-present fear that all cultures and civilizations have that sooner or later the levers of power will fall into the hands of someone who can only ever concentrate on his own needs and desires; the demands of justice and any actual good of the people be damned.  Even in the case of Richard III, this sense of skepticism prevails.  While scholars like Langley remain focused on saving a name from the slings and arrows of a bad reputation, Shakespeare himself appears more concerned with bigger fish.  All of his best work rests in asking a single question.  What is the difference between a just and unlawful form of government?  What makes for a good leader, and how or why do some with potential fall into the worst tragic fates imaginable?  It helps to keep in mind that this is not an interrogation that Shakespeare is willing to spare even the victims in his plays from.

Take the character of Julius Caesar, for instance.  Here the writer can't dispute that the death in question counts as a tragedy, of a specific sort.  What he wants us to pay close attention to is the personal flaw that both contributes to, and ultimately allows the tragedy to take place.  At one point in the play, Caesar admits to being "deaf in one ear", and that line is significant.  It is the artist's way of signaling to the audience that the title character (both on the stage, as well as in actual Roman history) always carries his fatal flaw about with him wherever he goes.  This tells us two things about the leader of Rome.  The first is that he is aware of his personal deficiencies, yet he treats it too lightly when it needs addressing the most.  Caesar's inability to hear properly corresponds to a lack of perception in terms of both the plot on his life, as well as (both history and the play imply) to his ability to function as a just ruler.  The play is then revealed as a kind of double tragedy.  The first stems from the flaws of Caesar.  The second comes from the fact that this is a flaw he appears to share with his own assassins.  Despite all their talk of liberty, both Brutus and Cassius wind up quarreling too much amongst themselves, and their compatriots to effect anything like a positive change.  They too are also blind to potential threats.

They don't figure on the cunning of Marc Antony to turn all of Rome against them.  Nor do they prove capable of surviving well on the field of battle.  The entire play, then, becomes a satirical condemnation of tyranny in not just one, but numerous forms.  It is an exercise in almost perfect irony, where both the victim and his murderers wind up having so much in common with each other that they are all blinded by this obvious aspect of their intwined enterprises.  What plays like this seem to tell us is that Shakespeare was the type of person who would always bow to the crown when in its presence, yet there would always be a difference between lip service in public, and one's own personal political convictions one held in private.  This was not an uncommon occurrence even during the height of what is still often touted as a New Era of Learning and Thought.  To be fair, there's no need to label such terms for the Renaissance as any sort of lie.  It's more a matter of two incompatible truths forced to occupy the same space.  A man can reach the conclusion that it is more just for the people to exercise their own free will in the decisions of government, and of autonomy over their own lives, while also having to live in the exact sort of social conditions which negate any possibility of realizing this same Democratic idea.

I share the conviction with Hadfield, Greenblatt, and Asquith that the Bard of Avon's own political views came to rest in a form of pre-American Liberal political thought.  Like many of the other great names of his age, Shakespeare began to see how it was possible for a people to live free from the yoke of any sort of crown.  Part of the tension that fired his imagination, then, stemmed from the burden of this growing sense of Democracy, coupled with the fact that his own society offered little chance for a man to realize such ideals.  A related strand of thought which completed the artist's crisis was the growing awareness that the overall policies of the crown both at home and abroad was in danger of draining the life out of English culture, leaving behind nothing but people as hollowed out husks, rather than free citizens in an open culture capable of thriving under the best possible Humanist ideals.  It was this double awareness both of the tyranny of monarchy and its threat to the ideals of justice that fired his Imagination throughout his career, and allowed him to become the Immortal Bard that we know and can still remember to this day.  So how does this apply to the case of Phillipa Langley and Richard III?

Well, from what I've read and am able to tell, Shakespeare would have been astounded by this discovery as much as any of the rest of us were.  At the same time, he would have exercised a greater sense of public discretion (certainly much better than that displayed by the likes of Richard Taylor), while also not valuing it as much as others.  The thing that has to be emphasized here is that while it's true he was and remains the author of Richard III, it's not the same as claiming the writer is a fan of those who stood against him at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  Instead, it's more a case of the artist having to write a play at the request of someone in the ruling class, or else it was the type of performance he had to put on in order to further his own position as a struggling, poor player from an otherwise unremarkable middle class background.  In fact, even when the Bard had his fame guaranteed as part of the King's Men, when all was done, he remained stuck in his position as a middleclass, lower end white collar worker.  In fact, his final years were spent having to supplement his income by working in both farming and cattle marketing.  He was never able to live off the income from his plays.  It just wasn't allowed in England back then, like it is now, you see.  So nothing is quite what it seems.

Plays like Richard III may amount to nothing more than inaccurate Tudor propaganda meant to bolster the claims of the right of monarchs like Elizabeth I to the throne.  The key thing that has to be kept in mind is that it was very much a command performance sort of work.  The man who first wrote and then staged it all knew he was being forced to do little more than act like a performing monkey for the pleasure of a ruling class that probably saw the making of potentially great works of Art as all beneath them.  For them, the thrill of domination over others was all.  The rest were just insubstantial shadows.  What I'm saying is that I don't think Shakespeare gave any more of a shit about King Richard than he did for either Elizabeth or James I.  In the end, for him it was all just a matter of figuring out how to survive the unpredictable whims of a bunch of power junkies with a firm grip on the levers of power.  For him, it was more a matter of finding the right ways to balance two conflicting requirements.  The Bard had to please the crown whenever it demanded a diversion (which, to his inevitable chagrin, came about perhaps a bit more often than he would have liked) while also finding ways to stay true to his own voice as an artist.  The fact that his plays testify to his ultimate success is its own tribute to perseverance.

So what does this all amount to?  Well for me, it all boils down to three things.  A trio of interlocking ideas which, in the case of Phillipa Langley, King Richard III and William Shakespeare, all come together to deliver an interesting message about the ways in which we tend to look at life.  Rather, let's say the final results amount to an interesting satire on the narrowness of the reigning paradigms that structure the way we perceive the nature of reality.  The first lesson a story like this teaches is that sometimes life is like a novel, of sorts.  An unspoken maxim that gets drummed into us in various ways is that life is not like all the make-believe stuff your read about in pages, or watch up on the screen (or the stage, for that matter).  The underlying philosophy of such advice is that the only way to survive whatever it is we mean by "the real world" is to slough off as many illusions as get in the way of having a normal life.  Then along comes a girl like Phillipa, and she goes on to prove all the ways in which "the real world" sometimes confines itself to the structure of all those old storybooks we were told bear no relation whatsoever to the concerns of actual life.  The second takeaway I get from this film, and the genuine facts behind it is that often there's always going to be more than a few gaps in the official accounts of ancient history.  There's always going to be something left out, or a vital clue or fact about accounts like the Battle of Bosworth Field that the majority of historian manage to overlook.

I think its a mistake to assign any malice aforethought to cases like this.  Most of the time, when this stuff happens, when even the most diligent historians get the facts of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance wrong it's because we're all dealing with eras in which we are all so many strangers that sometimes our own history can't help but turn into a jigsaw puzzle that we just don't have all the pieces to.  This makes the task of faithfully reconstructing the lives of figures like Shakespeare or Richard III a lot more difficult than if either of them were our contemporaries in the present day.  We seem to be on surer ground with things that have happened to us recently, or at least that's what we hope, anyways.  We can only go so far before the memory itself runs the risk of becoming a cheat.  Writers like Neil Gaiman are able to demonstrate this particular ironic maxim to perfect effect in novels like Violent Cases.  It's a fact as true in life as it is in fiction.  That's why the efforts of scholars such as Langley can be of very valuable help.  People like her make sure we never entirely lose ourselves to the passage of time.  The final and most important lesson is that there may be some who would attempt to block others from helping us to make sure the truth of history isn't distorted by setting up roadblocks for anyone who would wish to make sure that the whole truth of real life experience is given its full hearing.

The Richard Taylors of the world seem to operate less on the assumption that it's possible to form a useful consensus on the facts of history or life in general, and more on the warped notion that everything that can be said to exist does so for no other reasons except those of various forms of personal gain and aggrandizement.  The problem with such an outlook is not only that it obscures the truth from people, it does so often at the expense of others.  In the case of Phillipa Langley, one can't shake the idea a lot of it has to do with questions of discrimination in terms of both gender and handicap.  When issues like this get in the way of the purpose of discovering the truth, that is always the moment when the risk of danger comes into play, and the hazards involved threaten to become too great to be taken lightly.  It's a lesson to be learned from well made films like this, and the history it seeks to recount.  Which perhaps winds up the biggest feather in Stephen Frears cap.  He's managed to make a docudrama that is able to meet the biggest hurdle facing this type of movie.  It is able to both tell an entertaining story, while remaining true enough to the facts of the case by never stretching things beyond the account history.  All of these are enough reasons for a hearty recommendation from me.  

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