‘A Royal Night Out’: Film Review

Nick Wall
Unabashedly royalist, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the wonder that is Bel Powley

Sarah Gadon plays Queen Elizabeth II when she was still a princess, and Bel Powley her sister Margaret, enjoying a night on the town when the war in Europe ended

Although its plot concerns a mishap and fun-filled adventure through nighttime London for the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret during the Victory in Europe celebrations, A Royal Night Out is a work of thorough calculation. Even its release date in the UK is cannily chosen, just two weeks after the birth of the latest royal baby (a girl, aptly enough). It arrives right in time to surf to assured box-office glory on a crest of local pro-monarchy sentiment and the national soft-spot for all things posh, both currently at a high pitch. And yet, despite it’s entirely predictable, cliché-embracing script, executed with a shrewd mix of forelock-tugging rectitude and cheekiness by director Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited, Kinky Boots), it remains an eminently watchable diversion.

That’s mostly thanks to the scene-stealing allure of Bel Powley, breakout British star of Sundance’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and soon to appear in a clutch of promising projects including Equals and A Storm in the Stars. Her character here is not unlike Minnie in Diary: a teen tear-away from a semi-abusive family, craving independence. Technically, she has the supporting role in this as a mischievous, up-for-stuff Princess Margaret, who would go on to secure a place in history as the Lindsay Lohan of the Royal Family. Seen here jocularly announcing herself as “P2” (meaning “princess 2”), tipsily dancing the lindy hop, and exclaiming such vintage expressions as “I’m completely cheesed!” and “Wizard!” with an infectious naughtiness, she’s enough to draw unswerving fealty from the most diehard republican (in the British sense) viewer. Those unfamiliar with how primogeniture works will wonder why didn’t they make that one queen.

Canadian actor Sarah Gadon (Enemy, Belle) has been cast as Elizabeth, the one who would get the crown and eventually be played at a very different stage of her life by Helen Mirren in The Queen. Like the latter film, A Royal Night Out offers a fantasy version of the current monarch, a wittier, smarter, more likeably vulnerable creature except that in this story she’s bridling against the establishment, incarnated by mother Queen Elizabeth (Emily Watson) and father King George VI (a near-unrecognizable Rupert Everett), instead of trying to uphold it as she does in the overrated Stephen Frears film.

Screenwriters Trevor De Silva and Kevin Hood’s very-loosely-based-on-a-few-facts script posits Elizabeth and Margaret in 1945 as young Rapunzels trapped in their ivory tower, who just want to go out and join the throng outside Buckingham Palace’s gates. Mum doesn’t want them too, but gentler-hearted dad thinks it might be a good chance to find out what the people think of the speech he’s planning to broadcast to the nation (not the same speech that climaxes the end of The King’s Speech). They’re allowed to go incognito (a footman suggests Margaret lose the tiara because “it rather gives the game away”) to the Ritz hotel, as long as they’re accompanied by two soldiers (Jack Laskey and Jack Gordon) as chaperones and back no later than 1 a.m.

It’s as foreseeable as the certainty that a tower of champagne glasses seen at one point will get smashed to the ground that the girls won’t get home before their curfew. First Margaret gives the soldiers the slip, and Elizabeth, ever the sensible one, sets off after her in pursuit, picking up a young Cockney soldier named Jack (Jack Reynor) along the way as a makeshift bodyguard and tour guide.

Calling herself “Lizzie” to disguise her identity, Elizabeth bristles at Jack’s sneering attitude towards the monarchy and authority in general while he mocks her toff accent, airs and graces in classic rom-com meet-cute fashion. Naturally, he’s been traumatized by all the death he’s seen and is currently AWOL from his unit. Their tired back-and-forth banter becomes even more of an irritant because it takes precious screen time away from watching Margaret visit a brothel, make friends with a local gangster (Roger Allam) and gatecrash parties.

It all gets resolved in a decorous way that’s so inoffensive this could almost serve as fodder for a Royal Command Performance, and that’s not necessarily a compliment. Mind you, the real queen might cringe at the liberties taken by the film with historical fact. Apparently, although she and the late Margaret (they were 19 and 14 years old, respectively, at the time) did venture out of the palace in disguise, they never got further than the Ritz and they had over a dozen chaperones, not just two.

Nevertheless, what does feel accurate here is the sense of chaotic, relieved hysteria that comes off the huge crowds of background artists. Perhaps digital effects were deployed to bulk out the bodies in some of the long shots, but the scenes in Trafalgar Square and the various club and hotel venues appear fit to burst with extras who really do look like they’re having a whale of time. There are some very soapy moments when one or two get to say tearful, patriotic things, but even that sentimentality feels period accurate in a Britain-Can-Take-It, Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On sort of way. Tactically deployed archive footage in the opening title sequences reinforces just how vast the crowds really were that day, and only the most misanthropic curmudgeon could begrudge the nation that moment of joy.

Production companies: A Hanway Films presentation in association with Twinstone, Screen Yorkshire, Scope Pictures, Lipsync LLP, Filmgate Films, Film i Vast, The Northlight Studios, Lionsgate of an Ecosse Films production
Cast: Sarah Gadon, Jack Reynor, Bel Powley, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson, Roger Allam, Ruth Sheen, Jack Laskey, Jack Gordon,
Director: Julian Jarrold
Screenwriters:Trevor De Silva, Kevin Hood
Producer: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Executive producers: Mark Woolley, Peter Watson, Thorsten Schumacher, Hugo Heppell, Peter Hampden, Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Editor: Luke Dunkley
Production designer: Laurence Dorman
Costume designer: Claire Anderson
Composer: Paul Englishby
Music supervisor: Ian Neil
Casting: Sam Jones
Sales: Hanway

No rating, 97 minutes