A lively bit of Royal Family fan-fiction that’s better than it has any right to be, A Royal Night Out posits that on the evening of May 8, 1945 (aka Victory in Europe Day), the young princesses Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and Margaret (Bel Powley) convinced their parents, the king and queen of England (a perfectly dry Rupert Everett and Emily Watson), to let them go out by themselves among the people and enjoy the wild party going on in every corner of London. Perhaps that set-up sounds like a stretch, but everything happens so fast that we just go with it. King George wants his daughters by his side, especially since he’s due to speak to the nation later that evening about the end of hostilities. But the girls, eager to flee the confines of Buckingham Palace even if it’s for one night, convince him that they can report back on how ordinary people received his address. (Remember The King’s Speech? The King is a stutterer, and he worries sick over these kinds of things.) So off the girls go, with two young officers tasked to watch them.
The first party they visit turns out to have been pre-gamed by their mom, and the supposedly incognito princesses are met by a receiving line of eager-beaver nobles. So, they ditch their stifling surroundings — and their chaperones — and take off into the crowded, raucous night. Margaret finds herself whisked away by a dashing and horny Naval intelligence officer. (“Did you see much action?” “Not as much action as I’d like, but I’m hoping to make up for that tonight.”) Chasing after her, Elizabeth boards a public bus, and winds up in a meet-cute with an AWOL airman (Jack Reynor), who’s seen so much of war that he’s got little use for patriotic platitudes and for whatever the King might have to say. (“I came back to the same column-dodgers with posh gigs and plummy voices on the waves,” he bristles.)
A Royal Night Out doesn’t exactly ask too much of us. It’s an elegantly mounted trifle — handsome, light, and swift. And we always know exactly where it’s headed. As these two sheltered, curious girls try to find each other and then their way home amid the all-night celebrations, they’re confronted by an assortment of gentlemen, scoundrels, and ordinary folk. We know the duo will learn a thing or two about sacrifice, and Elizabeth’s bitter pilot will learn a thing or two about loyalty. We know there will be drunkenness, and mistaken identities, and romance. The filmmakers have meticulously prepared everything for us, much as the queen had meticulously prepared everything for her daughters.
But again, the film is so quick, so vivacious that it’s all quite hard to resist. Director Julian Jarrold is a veteran of many a British prestige picture and TV series, but he demonstrates a nice feel for fast physical comedy here. When the princesses slip out of their first party, various bits of business — a watchful chaperone suddenly and conveniently distracted, a pyramid of champagne glasses hovering on the edge of collapse, a conga line gone out of control, and all the guests swirling with drunken glee — are staged and paced almost like a cartoon. The two leads are delightful as well, with Powley’s wide-eyed and adventurous Margaret making a nice foil for Gadon’s more responsible-minded, occasionally bewildered Elizabeth. They even do a solid job selling the predictable dialogue, much of which is obviously built around the irony of two princesses interacting with people who don’t recognize them. (“Family well off, by any chance?” “We manage.”) A prestige piece that manages never to be stuffy or sprawling, A Royal Night Out benefits greatly from a spirit of fun and a sense of humor. And it’s the kind of movie that knows not to overstay its welcome.