It’s VE Day. Londoners take to the streets in celebration, a roar of emotion after years of misery and suffering. While the crowds dance in Trafalgar Square and wait outside Buckingham Palace, anticipating the King’s VE Day speech, two girls are begging their parents to let them join in the festivities – Princess Elizabeth, future Queen of England and her younger sister, Princess Margaret.
Margaret, played by a gushing Bel Powely, is the schemer behind the two, convincing Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) that the only way they will possibly get to go out on the town is if it’s Elizabeth that asks their parents. Their mother and father, the King and Queen (Rupert Everett and Emily Watson), are preparing for the King to address the expectant crowds outside the palace, and the King especially wants his family around him during this important time. Eventually, much to their mother’s dismay, Elizabeth manages to convince her father to let her and Margaret go, enticing him with the idea that they can be amongst the crowd ‘incognito’ and report back to him what the people really think of their King.
Dressed to the nines, and ready to take on the town, the girls are escorted to the Ritz by two stiff and serious officers, instructed to keep a watchful eye on the princesses and be designated all-round fun-sponges for the evening. But even these two gentlemen of order cannot resist the festivities of VE Day, and are soon distracted by a rambunctious gathering in the next room. The free flowing champagne slips down their throats almost as easily as Princess Margaret slips away from the musty party her and Elizabeth have had arranged for them by their mother. Elizabeth, noticing her sister’s absence soon follows in pursuit. Both sisters, unsurprisingly, are strangers to the London Public Transport System and they board separate buses, heading in very different directions… and so the night truly begins.
Margaret launches across town, moving quickly and cheerfully from one party to another, befriending officers, pimps and prostitutes, with Elizabeth trying desperately to find her amongst the crowds. A collision with Jack (Jack Reynor), a gruff airman with a thorough distaste for the royals, provides Elizabeth with the unexpected (and reluctant) guide she needs to traipse across London in search of her sister.
A Royal Night Out is a fun film – that can definitely be said. The costumes and settings are beautifully designed and give the film a charming aesthetic effect, and coupled with a rich soundtrack (think big brass swing, typical of the time) the energy of the VE Day celebrations translates through in an authentic manner. Bel Powely is brilliant as Margaret and really is the stand-out in any scene, delivering a comical contrast to Elizabeth’s worried and frantic demeanour throughout the film. If you were to take away the fact that it was VE Day, and that our protagonists are who they are, the evening’s proceedings would ring true with a lot of people who have had one of those stressful nights out where everything goes awry. And maybe that is what the film was trying to achieve – to show that these two royals are just normal girls wanting to have a fun night out – but it didn’t seem to quite reach that. Elizabeth and Jack’s relationship has certain elements of fairy tale to it, with anonymity, curfews and damsel-in-distress moments, yet it all becomes quite anticlimactic and the chemistry between them is sometimes difficult to believe.
If you’re looking for a social commentary on the differing experiences between classes during the war, or an exploration of the disillusionment amongst troops post WW2, A Royal Night Out may not quite be your cup of English Breakfast. It skims over these issues so quickly and lightly that it almost leaves you wondering why they bothered to touch on them at all. But despite its half-hearted take on the more serious side of war and class differences, its theatrics and humour save it, and makes this a very enjoyable, amusing and light-hearted viewing.