By mixing “The King’s Speech” with “Roman Holiday,” “A Royal Night Out” is likely to become your mother and grandmother’s new favorite movie. We promise that we mean no offense to either the matriarchs in your family or this charming movie. This British trifle of a film imagines what happened to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Windsor on V-E Night in 1945. Historical details are thin on what really happened to the young women the evening their father King George VI delivered his historic address, so “A Royal Night Out” fantasizes their exploits with fun period detail.
The film begins with black-and-white newsreel footage of the war’s end, cutting to a similarly toned image of Elizabeth’s observant face. Played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon (“Enemy,” “Belle”) with an accent that sounds perfectly upper-class British to these American ears, she’s a prim princess of 19. Elizabeth is well aware of her future as the country’s monarch and the responsibility she bears. Younger sister Margaret is played by “Diary of a Teenage Girl” star Bel Powley, again playing much younger than her years as the vivacious 14-year-old “P2.” The women convince their parents (Rupert Everett and Emily Watson) to experience the night’s epic celebration amongst the common people, with the promise to relay the reaction to their father’s speech. The princesses shake off their bodyguards and embark on a night that has them experiencing life and their own country in an entirely new way. They’ve been sequestered their entire lives — “Like nuns!” the effervescent Margaret explains — and V-E Night exposes them to the Ritz, dancing the Lindy in public, as well as a handsome, opinionated soldier (Jack Reynor). With their bodyguards (Jack Laskey and Jack Gordon) otherwise engaged, Elizabeth and Margaret spend most of the night incognito among their people.
The best feature of “A Royal Night Out” may be the contrast between the two sisters. Elizabeth is thoughtful with measured actions, a staunch supporter of crown and country. That said, she knows as much as she can how her life has differed from most of those in England during World War II. Gadon plays her with appropriate seriousness, but affection shines through. Meanwhile, sister Margaret is all free-wheeling behavior and slang-filled speech. (Side note: I’m going to bring the phrase “completely cheesed” back into vogue.) As Margaret, Powley gets to have the most fun, with her girlish giggles providing a fun counterpoint to her often serious sister. Powley wowed us (and practically everyone else) earlier this year in “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and “A Royal Night Out” is likely to cement her status as a talent to watch for anyone who sees either film. She’s believably bubbly, acting as much of the film’s comedic focus. The part is well-scripted, but credit should be shared with Powley. The pair of bumbling bodyguards (Laskey and Gordon) are also a highlight.
Director Julian Jarrold has previously worked with fact-inspired fiction in “Becoming Jane,” which invented a romance for the titular Austen. Here, the imagined history arrives from screenwriters Trevor De Silva and Kevin Hood. There aren’t too many surprises in the film’s overall trajectory, though this type of film is more about comfort than disruption. The royals-in-disguise plotline has been used before, and dialogue around the discovery of Elizabeth’s identity feels more than a little familiar. It’s not all fun, games and dancing for the sisters — Jarrold mixes in some drama throughout, though it isn’t the kind of war drama that will leave an audience trudging morosely out of the theater or sniffling into a tissue.
“A Royal Night Out” is the type of movie the word “delightful” was made to describe, both for its largely gleeful mood and for the kind of people who use the word “delightful.” There’s never too much at stake for the princesses or the audience, but it makes for a fine diversion from the realities of life and history. [B]