A period piece about Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret is one of the wildest, most bizarre and confounding films of the year – an equal mix of Disney princess fare, screwball comedies, old musicals, and also Superbad (without the dick jokes, of course). Julian Jarrold’s A Royal Night Out is probably the first film about the Royal Family where the au courant (and not even remotely cultured) phrase “cray cray” is mildly appropriate. The erratic shifts in tone: cray cray. The go-to-the-party-and-get-smashed-and-laid plot: cray cray. The central romance between princess and peasant: cray cray (but also oddly touching).
The story’s backdrop doesn’t initially seem appropriate for a Cinderella story. Set on V.E. day in 1945, the last day of WWII, Princess Elizabeth and Margaret nag their parents to go celebrate with the citizenry on the London streets. The sisters join the party with the expectation that they will relay back to the king the public’s reception of his speech (yes, that king with the speech problem). These first few minutes play to what we expect: a stilted period drama about the state of English morale from the perspective of privileged and naïve members of the Royal Family.
What follows is a boisterous, lively, and absurd romantic comedy, not even remotely concerned with properly documenting the period or offering a nuanced depiction of the monumental day. Instead, this is a world of enrapturing fantasy: a car is a carriage with horses, the curfew time is when the fairy godmother’s magic wears off, and V.E. day is the night of the lavish party. This live-action fantasy very deliberately baits and switches our expectations, and if you take the bait but don’t move to the movie’s switch, you’re a goner. It’s like trying to open a door with the wrong key.
But if you unlock this movie’s world on its own terms, in a depoliticized and oversimplified view of history, A Royal Night Out becomes a ball, with odd indulgences: a smash cut from a drab breakfast to a speeding car driven by Elizabeth and slapstick gags involving an overly inebriated Margaret, including one particularly ridiculous instance where she is carried in a wheel-barrow. It’s all naughty and unexpected enough to be entertaining but also appropriate and safe enough to be digested without much controversy.
When first arriving to a ball neatly dressed like dolls, the princesses break free from their chaperons and eventually go on individual journeys of their own. Margaret wants to get drunk and find a suitable mate, but Elizabeth loses track of her sister and frantically tries to retrace her steps. Along the way, Elizabeth meets a stiff and handsome soldier who guides her across the city, and they will fall madly in love by the end of the film, which is only over the course of one night.
Of course, this is all ridiculous. Of course, no one’s make up runs during the night. Of course, everyone looks beautiful and never tired. Of course, no one gets lost even when they are separated between enormous crowds. Of course, of course, of course. But this is not a film that tries to play to the conventions of historical dramas, it is its own self, lovingly and wonderfully informed by more stylized, heightened and outdated films.
From the visual style, which mostly feels stagey and primitive, to the theatrical performances by the supporting characters, like Bel Powley’s Margaret and Jack Gordon and Jack Laskey as the princesses’ chaperons, A Royal Night Out is inspired by films that were less concerned with verisimilitude. Jack Reynor’s performance as the soldier and love interest, is as plastic as a Disney action figure, while Sarah Gadon’s face radiates with classic Hollywood beauty.
The tension between the “prestige” elements of the film we expect and the unpretentious pleasures we end up indulging in, delightfully matches Elizabeth’s journey in the film. Stuck up, ignorant, and feeling mildly superior, Elizabeth is too high and mighty to be aware of mundane realities like riding a bus, walking crowded streets, or directing herself away from some the grungy parts of town. As the film loosens its grip, indulging in broad character types, ridiculous contrivances, and a fantastical romance, Elizabeth begins to break out of her royal shell. The film is obliterating our own pretensions and cynicism in the process. It’s hard not to be won over.
For all the artifice, for all the mixing of high-brow culture and low-brow gags, and even for some of the patchier moments, A Royal Night Out has scenes of subversion, heart and humor. Those expecting a Royal film will get an entertaining night out.