This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Based (extremely) loosely on the true story of how Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret joined the common folk in their celebrations of V.E. Day, 1945.
What we thought
A Royal Night Out is, in absolutely no uncertain terms, utter nonsense. Not only does this “historical dramedy” have really very little do with any events that ever actually happened (the princesses apparently did little more than stand outside the palace gates on V.E night and were home by 1:00 AM), it also has very little of any real merit as a piece of storytelling. Basically a posher take on something like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist or After Hours, it's very silly, very shallow and very ill disciplined in terms of both plotting and tone.
It's also, however, quite a lot of fun.
The real story, of course, would have been quite boring so it's understandable that they invented much of what happens in the movie but, more importantly, because the film is clearly so thoroughly divorced from the real world, it has the space to work as a piece of fluffy light fantasy. So, between Elizabeth meeting and falling for a handsome young, anti-monarchist soldier without his ever realising who she is for most of the night and her taking the same young, anti-monarchist to have breakfast with her parents, we have scenes of a very young Margaret (she was 14 in real life at the time but seems to be at least a bit older in this movie) making off with – and out with - random revellers, before landing up in a brothel run by a veritable fanboy of all things royal and ending the night being pushed around, in a drunken stupor, in a wheelbarrow. It's just that kind of film.
Tonally, it's even more out of whack as the more serious moments between Elizabeth and her soldier boy often undercut the shambolic fun of everything else going on around them, while the gravity of the newly dawning post-war England loses much of its weight by the frothiness of the rest of the film. It's a total mess that leaves you entirely unsure of what you're actually supposed to be taking away from the film – if, indeed, there is anything at all to actually be taken – and, more simply, what you're supposed to be feeling.
That said though, the tonal whiplash would be much more of a problem if the actors involved didn't make everything about the film – both the high camp and the more grounded romance and post-war stuff – so endearing. It's not so much that the acting is great – though the cast itself certainly is – but that there's a spiritedness to these performances that are hard to shake. Whether it's Jack Reynor's earnest young soldier or Rupert Everett and Emily Watson as the terrifically natty double act of the king and queen respectively, the sheer liveliness of these performances elevate very under-written characters. Rupert Everett, in particular, is a far cry from Colin Firth's brilliantly nuanced take on King George in The King's Speech but he's almost as endearing.
The real stars though, are our two leading ladies. Sarah Gadon's Elizabeth is undoubtedly the most straight laced character in the film but she brings enough warmth, wit and sheer screen presence to the role that she somehow gives you a new found appreciation of the real Queen Elizabeth – and, again, that's in spite of the fact that much of what we're dealing with here is completely fabricated gobbledegook. Bel Powley as Margaret (or Princess 2 or P2), on the other hand, is simply delightful as the future queen's perennially put-upon, somewhat daft but incredibly sweet and funny sister. I have no idea if Margaret was actually like this but, after spending a breezy 90-minutes with her fictional counterpart, I really hope she was.
A Royal Night Out is not what anyone in their right mind would call a “good film” but it's certainly an incredibly likeable one, all the same.