You can say this much for A Royal Night Out – it certainly throws away the rule book for British films that deal with our royal family.
It’s not that such films are exactly humourless – but their wit springs from deference in the presence of royalty, with lightly comedic situations that generate a raised eyebrow, a coy titter or a sly wink. In contrast, A Royal Night Out sets out its stall with broad jokes, saucy dialogue and belly laughs. It may be patchy and uneven, but it’s a good-hearted attempt to treat the royals with affectionate jollity.
It is rooted in the almost certainly fictional story that on the evening of May 8, 1945, when all London was riotously celebrating V.E. Day, the two young royal princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stepped outside the palace walls and mingled totally unrecognised for most of the night with their joyous subjects.
Given the unlikelihood of this story, director Julian Jarrold and his screenwriters Trevor de Silva and Kevin Hood feel free to have fun with its possibilities. What ensues is a giddy romp, a fast-moving, romantic adventure through London’s crowds, punctuated by gaffes, pratfalls, drunkenness, bad behaviour and mild jeopardy. You won’t need to believe a word of it.
Canadian actress Sarah Gadon plays our future Queen, a serious-minded young woman curious to know more about her subjects. Bel Rowley is energetically comic as fun-loving Margaret (or ‘P2’ as she calls herself, meaning the second princess.) She’s boy crazy, no stranger to alcohol, devoted to the pleasure principle and rather less bright than her older sister. The script doesn’t give Rowley much of a character to work with, but she’s a reliable hoot throughout.
“We’ve been positively cloistered for six years!” Margaret moans on V.E. day to her parents (played by Rupert Everett and Emily Watson). When her father finally relents, Margaret dashes along a corridor yelling: “We’re going out! Incognito!” A solemn footman replies: “Does the tiara rather give the game away, Madam?” (The Palace’s camp courtiers are a source of delight.)
Still, the princesses get to go out, along with two appointed military chaperones whose one brief is to not let the girls out of their sight. Their hapless failings in this regard are part of the film’s broad humour. The girls’ night traverses booze-sodden Chelsea Barracks, raucous Trafalgar Square and sinful Soho. They give their escorts the slip. They get separated at one point. Margaret encounters more than one unsuitable man. And, surprisingly within this comic context, Elizabeth gets to overhear sentiments from the crowd that are resentful about Britain’s class divisions, if not explicitly anti-monarchist.
Crucially, Elizabeth meets Jack (Jack Reynor), a young man who voices such discontent. He takes a shine to her, without having the faintest idea of who she really is. He’s working class, in the military and bristling with resentment – but he’s kind and protective to her, and around dawn takes her to his humble home where she meets his mother (Ruth Sheen).
Their chaste one-night romance (there’s not so much as a kiss on camera) adds a more sombre tone to proceedings – and rather deflates the fun. It doesn’t help that Jack is a cipher rather than a character, and he comes to seem dull.
Beyond its laudable energy and sense of fun, A Royal Night Out doesn’t add up to much; but it is tolerably amusing, and at 97 minutes does not overstay its welcome.
Yet two cast members here stand out: as George VI, Rupert Everett brings a diffident but genuine compassion and nuance to his role. Yes, the stutter is in evidence, but it’s not the point of the entire character, as it was in The King’s Speech. This is acting at its most beautifully subtle. And as Princess Elizabeth, Sarah Gadon has an almost luminous quality – outward calm underpinned by questing intelligence. In the jostling crowds, she’s resourceful under pressure; alone, she looks serene and poised. You may conclude that these two performances alone make the whole of A Royal Night Out worthwhile.