A Royal Night Out is helmed by Julian Jarrold, director of Kinky Boots and other classic British fare including Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revisited. With such credits, A Royal Night Out looks to be another stuffy period piece trying to imitate the success of The King’s Speech and cash in on the 70th anniversary of V.E. day and recent birth of a new member of the British royal family with few cheesy jokes and saccharine situations. To a certain extent, this is true. There’s bygone slang and exclamations aplenty, said in perfectly plummy accents, with some light subversive situations thrown in. It does get cozy with convention. But beyond all that, there is a film that pulls off convention so deftly, but goes beyond the traditional lack of real-world connection with the narrative to create not only a delightful period piece, but also a moving coming-of-age film.
Jarrold’s double coming-of-age narrative is set over one night, where both its heroine and the world she lives in come into their own. It’s May 8, 1945, also known as V.E. Day. Europe is emerging from the last six years of destructive war, which has killed millions of people and left countless others damaged, displaced from homes and families, lives stripped bare and destroyed. But on the day of peace, there’s something electric in the air. It crackles with the excitement of a new beginning, of hope, of adventure.
In the middle of it all, faced with mounting responsibilities, imminently shouldering the weight of an entire empire when she barely knows herself, is 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth (a luminous Sarah Gadon) , who would go on to be the Queen of England less than a decade later. Having only got a limited taste of the outside world where one doesn’t require a chaperone for simple, everyday activities when serving in an auxiliary branch of the army, she longs to join the celebrations unfolding just outside her door. Of course, her parents (Emily Watson and Rupert Everett) are apprehensive towards such an adventure, one that could go so wrong. Under the guise of gauging the public’s response to her father, King George VI (Everett)’s, radio address, her and her sister, 14-year-old Princess Margaret (a fantastic Bel Powley), are allowed out of the palace for the night. The catch, however: they are only allowed to attend an official function, and must be chaperoned by two bumbling officers (Jack Laskey, who also ventured into World War II history with Canadian series X Company earlier this year, and Jack Gordon) all night. However, they both get swept up in the action, with Margaret going on an irreverent and at times inappropriate adventure through every party district of London, with Elizabeth on a mission to find her, dragging disgraced officer Jack (Jack Reynor) along with her for the ride.
It’s a tale that recalls the type unabashadely romantic tales of self-discovery popularised in the 40s and 50s. Audrey Hepburn springs to mind, it feels like Roman Holiday‘s soul sister, a kindred tale of temporary escape and adventure. It’s a lost style, pulled off by Jarrold with a kind of effervescent looseness not seen on screen since 2008s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, another mid-century, London-set tale of mistaken identity and self-discovery.
Jarrold has a few tricks up his sleeve, in both his set-ups and actors, for making the magic happen. He’s able to make the city feel wondrous, like an amusement park. It’s large but easily navigatable, with many kind people willing to help out along the way, not feeling foreign or daunting, but a place to be excitedly explored. It’s a rose-coloured glasses view, an innocent world still not fettered by cynicism.
Here, we see this through the eyes of a 19-year-old girl and her younger sister, excited to venture into the outside world for the first time. It’s not just at any time, either. A world is being born, one that belongs to the youth. Just being able to witness the moment is exciting enough, with what lies ahead making it even more so, a moment where one can claim the world as their own. The journey to find is exciting, with the future ahead not scary, but just as exciting.
I describe it this way because, despite the fact the central characters are based on Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret, they are by no means promoted as history book ready representations. A Royal Night Out doesn’t present itself as fact. Here, then Princess Elizabeth is simply Lizzie, a young woman finding herself like any other. She’s experiencing the world on her own terms for the first time, with all the giddy excitement and realisations about oneself that that entails. It’s beautiful, poignant, and what’s more, universal.
A Royal Night Out‘s magic stems from the fact that it is somehow made relatable, bolstered by two terrific, magnetic performances. Gadon (who is a regular in David Cronenberg films, it’s mystifying how she isn’t a mainstream star yet) recalls Audrey Hepburn, not since Carey Mulligan’s turn in An Education has someone represented her grace, humour and strength so miraculously. Together with Powley, who is sure to become a go-to talent after this and her turn in Diary of a Teenage Girl, they have fantastic chemistry, Gadon’s more muted role bouncing off Powley’s one-liner-heavy role perfectly. They transform potentially one-note roles into something deeply felt, honing in on their search for identity when the future has already been set for you.
It’s title seems to suggest otherwise. A Royal Night Out is a title I would have coined as a 12-year-old obsessed with Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, derivative and a bit juvenile. But it’s a delighful ride from beginning to end, one that doesn’t choose to deliver its earnest realisations in heavy-handed speeches, rather deciding to keep within the light, celebratory tone of the film and let them unfold naturally. It results in some deeply, authentically moving moments. Never before has period drama been so accessible, evoking that monumental and unabashedly joyful and unforgettable feeling of venturing on your own for the first time, and discovering so much about yourself.