A Royal Night Out

May 23, 2015
Bel Powley in 'A Royal Night Out' (2015)
Bel Powley in 'A Royal Night Out' (2015)

“God save the Queen. She ain’t no human bean!” sang Johnny Rotten in the Jubilee year of 1977. “Oh yes she is,” say the makers of A Royal Night Out – a movie designed to convince us the British Royal Family are not only human but adorable. For director, Julian Jarrold, this film is even more spiffingly British than his screen adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (2008) or his bio pic about Jane Austen (2007).

The perfect reviewer for this fantasy would be Morrisey, whose anti-royalist tendencies make the Sex Pistols seem affectionate. The man who wrote the post-punk anthem, The Queen is Dead, wouldn’t be taken in by all this codswallop about two cute, unworldly princesses slumming it with the masses. As for the rest of us, we might as well sit back and enjoy it.

It’s VE Day, 8 May 1945, and 19-year-old Elizabeth and 15-year-old Margaret are desperate to go out and celebrate with the hoi polloi, who are running wild in the streets of London. The Queen – played by Emma Watson, in yet another staunchly maternal role – is opposed to the idea, but the King (Rupert Everett), takes a more indulgent approach. Let them have a little fun.

There will be more fun than intended, as the girls give the slip to two bumbling army officers employed as their chaperones and venture incognito into the streets. Margaret is the catalyst, fuelled by a few glasses of champagne that propel her out the door of the Dorchester in search of fun. Elizabeth – or Lilibet, as she is quaintly dubbed – is the sensible girl who spends most of the evening in pursuit of her hell-raising sister.

The film owes much of its charm to the performances of Canadian actress, Sarah Gadon, radiantly beautiful as Elizabeth; and Londoner, Bel Powley, who plays Margaret as a comic turn, using expressions such as: “I’m completely cheesed!” and “Wizard!”

This is a unique part for Gadon, who has finally escaped the clutches of the talentless David Cronenberg after starring in no fewer than three of his films and one directed by his son, Brandon. Her big challenge is the posh accent, and only the greatest purist would say she has failed to master those plummy tones.

The real Princess Margaret was known to be a party girl, but Powley’s version stretches credibility, with amusing results. Tipsy and babbling uncontrollably she is led off to a low dive in Soho, by a cad, played perfectly by Jack Allam. Elizabeth finds herself a protector and escort in a young working class soldier named Jack (Jack Reynor), who is playing truant from barracks for the night.

The liaison with Jack allows for much banter about class consciousness, which comes across as sentimental and stagey. Jack is no fan of rich toffs, but he is eventually won over by Lizzie’s good heart. If this is less nauseating than it sounds it’s largely because the entire film is made of white bread and marmalade. Despite the flirtation, one knows with absolute certainty that no barriers of protocol will be crossed. The royals remain in their palace while the commoners live in tiny terraces. God is in His heaven and all is well with the world.

Did any of this really happen? Apparently it did, in a very limited way. On VE Day the young princesses left the Palace with a group of Royal hangers-on and spent a grand three hours partying with the people, or more accurately, a small cross-section of the people. They were home by midnight and would make similar excursions on the nights that followed.

The princesses may have enjoyed the thrill of being incognito, but it seems for most of the time they were among retainers who knew exactly who they were and kept a watchful eye. These were the days before the paparazzi swarmed like flies around celebrities and aristocrats. It may have been possible for Elizabeth and Margaret to enjoy a glimmer of freedom, but nothing like the nocturnal romp one finds in this film.

The Royal Family have had a few rough patches since the end of the Second World War, but they can be pleased with this benign piece of propaganda that endows them with an innocence from the world of fairy tales.

A Royal Night Out
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Written by Trevor De Silva & Kevin Hood
Starring Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Jack Reynor, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson, Roger Allam
UK, rated MA, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd May, 2015.