71 – A Royal Night Out:
On this day, 71 years ago, peace was declared in Europe. The Second World War was half over, and a national day of rejoicing was on the cards. Even the Royal Family were in a celebrating mood. The young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret asked if they could go out into the crowds to celebrate with everyone else. Permission was granted and, like any young girls let off their leash for a few hours…they responsibly returned home for their curfew. But some seventy years later, some filmmakers decided to come up with a fun ‘what if’ scenario. What if the two princesses ditched their chaperones and headed off into the drunken depravity that is downtown London? What if the Queen who only recently celebrated her 90th birthday once just wanted an evening of fun, like any normal nineteen-year-old? What if the things that normally happen to young girls on a drinking binge happened to two princesses? The result is A Royal Night Out – a light-hearted comedy that came out only last year. I only saw it on a whim, and it was one of my favourite films of 2015. Be warned: this movie is complete nonsense and not to be taken as fact. It’s just meant to be enjoyed.
We open on a shot of the young Princess Elizabeth, played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon. Doing a very good plummy royal accent, she is twenty-seven playing Elizabeth at nineteen. Margaret is likewise played the twenty-two-year-old Bel Powley, despite being only fourteen in real life. The movie seems to keep the princesses’ ages pretty vague. Anyway, it’s May 8th 1945. Germany has just announced its surrender and peace is declared in Europe. So a day of celebration is in order. The two princesses want to go out into the crowds to celebrate with everyone else, but their parents disapprove. King George is played by Rupert Everett, and Queen Elizabeth is played by Emily Watson.
If there’s one thing I think the movie kind of fails on, it’s in the representation of the Queen Mother. By all accounts, she was a very friendly and amiable woman in her time. She was famous for always being cheerful and for having a good sense of humour. Knowing that, it’s a little disappointing that the movie depicts her as a rather stuffy prude. Emily Watson does a good job with what she has, Rupert Everett less so. The two at least aren’t in the film that much, and the princesses are more than able to carry it.
Margaret has been reading all about the best places to go this evening and the most fashionable dances. She’s especially excited about one at the Chelsea Barracks; one of the palace guards even gave her the secret password. Elizabeth has a clever way of getting their parents to agree; her father is anxious about giving a speech to the public over the radio. She suggests that they go out incognito to listen to how the commoners react.
The King and Queen agree, although the Queen is still reluctant. She ends up calling over two men from the Chelsea Barracks – Capt. Pryce & Lt. Burridge – to act as the princesses’ chaperones for the evening. They’re also given a 1 am curfew. Not to be back a minute later.
Well by all accounts they actually did make it back to Buckingham Palace by then, but of course that’s not much fun for a film. The party at The Ritz is also not looking to be much fun – as it’s packed full of old upper class twits, courtesy of the Queen’s meddling. The girls are far more excited by the rowdy partiers outside. The military chaperons are briefly distracted by a conga line, allowing Margaret to quickly sneak out and get snapped up by a pilot. Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth gets out too. The chaperones are kept busy by some ladies looking for free love. Elizabeth sees Margaret getting onto a bus and gets on the next one. She doesn’t have any money with her, good thing for…
Meet Jack, an airman played by Irish actor Jack Reynor (doing a flawless cockney accent). He pays her fare, but ends up tagging along with her when the bus screeches to a stop and the two fall off. Jack seems eager to avoid a bunch of redcaps, so he shows Elizabeth to a pub where she can get cleaned up. Oh and she’s also broken one of her heels.
Margaret and her pilot, named Jeffers, head over to Trafalgar Square while Lt. Burridge gets interrupted in the middle of a good shag by the King on the phone. His Majesty reminds him of the speech that’s due to be broadcast any minute. In the pub where Jack and Elizabeth are, Jack seems not to care about the speech. He’s chewed out for being “disloyal and abusive to your sovereign” by the entire pub. For those wondering, the Royal Family actually were quite popular among the people during that particular time. As I said above, the Queen Mother frequently made visits to the ruined home. She always dressed in bright colours, to suggest a ‘rainbow of hope’ and bring up the people’s morale. The Royal Family also refused to evacuate during the Blitz and stayed in London with the people. The Queen Mother was even glad when Buckingham Palace was bombed, saying she could finally look the East End in the face.
Jack gets tossed outside for bringing everyone’s spirits down (if only they still did that in pubs today) but Elizabeth follows him – because she needs help getting to Trafalgar Square. They’re a bit at odds, due to the huge difference in social situation. Elizabeth is a wealthy upper class rose with a plummy voice. Jack is a lower class lout who’s about as rough as they come. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t take either side in that little class conflict. After all, people of every social status were affected by World War II. The movie hits a point that a show like Downton Abbey was trying to go for, but ultimately failed. Downton tried to routinely show the upper classes in a more sympathetic light – but the end result was what looked like nostalgia for the aristocracy days. Even though this movie is a comedy, it shows both sides of the conflict. There are some upper class idiots who do look down on others. But Elizabeth and Margaret are shown as fundamentally good people – and Jack’s dislike of “your lot” is shown to be unfair. He’s played sympathetically too. The movie doesn’t really draw attention to this lesson, but it’s a very good one. Plus, it also gives us this fantastic exchange when Jack takes note of Elizabeth’s accent.
Jack: “Family well-off by any chance?”
Elizabeth: “…we manage.”
They reach Trafalgar Square, with a very feel-good shot of the celebrations going on. Jack appears to have got the wrong idea, and Elizabeth has to tell him she’s spoken for. So she focuses on trying to find her sister. Margaret’s actually gone for a paddle in the fountain, but Jeffers suggests to take her off to the Curzon Club. Jack and Elizabeth go up to Buckingham Palace to see the King and Queen appear before the public, hoping Margaret might be there. The next part is one of the loveliest scenes in the film; as the clock chimes midnight, we see shots of the various people celebrating peace. Elizabeth is hugged and kissed by complete strangers, Sarah Gadon giving us some adorable facials at her surprise. Overall, this little sequence really captures the nationwide feeling the people must have felt on the night. Despite all the losses and tragedies, peace had come at last. Even though so many lives had been taken, the people were all united in a brief moment – for something positive and wonderful. Bonus points for filming the scene on the 70th anniversary of VE Night.
Elizabeth tries to get Jack to help her by offering him a drink afterwards – as her fiancée is abroad and “overseas doesn’t count”. Pryce and Burridge unfortunately have now discovered that the princesses have fled and…well what do you think happens to soldiers who lose two heirs to the throne in a city full of over seven million?
Jeffers and Margaret get bored with Curzon, so he takes her to a place in Soho. Judging by the scantily clad girls and gambling men, it’s not the most wholesome of places. Jeffers even puts something in Margaret’s drink. Jack and Elizabeth have to bribe the doorman at the Curzon to tell them where Margaret went. But Jack gets into an argument with a rude captain and disappears as soon as the redcaps come running. Elizabeth is curious about this, and also notices that some of Jack’s stripes are missing. He simply says they got taken off for talking back.
Margaret gets a little light-headed and wanders downstairs to where the resident spiv does business. It turns out he’s a big fan of the Royal Family, and is ecstatic to meet ‘P-2’ as Margaret calls herself. I can pinpoint the line “P-2 in my knocking shop” as when I completely fell in love with this movie. The spiv takes care of Jeffers, and Margaret slyly tells him about the party at Chelsea Barracks. A load of officers are bound to be in need of some female amusement, and she knows the password. Elizabeth and Jack reach the…ahem…knocking shop, after Margaret has already left. But one of the whores mistakes Elizabeth for her sister, and is able to tell them where she’s gone.
“My sister has gone to Chelsea with a carload of tarts!”
Jack finds himself in a fight with the bouncer, but Elizabeth helps out by clocking him with a tin. They temporarily hide with a few dancers, even though Jack can’t dance. We now find out why he’s been so suspicious around the military officers this evening: he doesn’t have the papers to be out. If he’s discovered AWOL, he’ll probably be shot. So that’s why he’s planning to flee to Paris or Canada. He has to see someone else before he goes though: his mother. It’s so sweet that he…. oh Jesus! Margaret’s in the car with the whores!
They arrive at Chelsea Barracks, and Margaret gets everyone inside. Presumably the girls go to work. Meanwhile, Jack and Elizabeth hop on a tugboat to cross the river. The comedy of the previous scene gives way to something more sobering – as the boat passes by a ruined house. But the occupants are still having dinner and carrying on as normal, despite the gaping hole in the wall. Jack then reveals why he lost his stripes: at one point, his plane was hit by artillery and his friend died in his arms. He asked to be stood down for a couple of days to recover – and the stripes were taken off for “low moral fibre” and he was sent straight back out.
At Chelsea Barracks, Pryce and Burridge decide to have one last drink before confessing to their Commanding Officer that they were too busy sampling some poontang pie to keep track of the princesses. We’re shown that it’s now nearly three in the morning, and the King and Queen are having kittens back at the palace. The spiv seems to be thinking the same, urging Margaret to go back home now. She wants to keep dancing and the soldiers lock Mr Spiv in the closet never to be seen again. Jack and Elizabeth sneak into the barracks, where Margaret is already being fought over by two drunk soldiers. They even pull rank on each other, to which Margaret says:
“Well, I outrank both of you! Enormously!”
Jack rescues her from the admirers, just in time for the princesses to finally do the dance they wanted. Jack joins in, apparently forgetting that he said he couldn’t dance earlier. The redcaps ruin the fun though, busting Jack for not being allowed in. Elizabeth now remembers there are plenty of advantages to owning half of Scotland – and goes ‘screw the rules, I make them’. Elizabeth confesses that all she wanted was a night where she could be ordinary “on the most extraordinary night of my life.” Jack is none too pleased to discover that he’s been lied to all night. Nonetheless, he agrees to let them come back to his mother’s house to help Margaret freshen up. Oh Lord, Elizabeth wheels Margaret in a wheelbarrow while the two soldiers follow in a taxi.
Elizabeth gets to have a little chat with Jack’s mother, regarding the King of England. Jack’s mother is rather proud of him for not wanting the job but still getting on with it anyway. She’s also a little sad about the effect the war had on Jack and the other boys, who signed up for the air force with such idealism. Margaret goes on ahead to the palace with the soldiers, while Elizabeth waits behind. And yes, she does the typical stumbling home at dawn. And yes, it is every bit as funny when home is the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Jack and Elizabeth drive down the empty early-morning streets of London, Elizabeth confessing that she doesn’t want the night to end just yet. She wistfully thinks of running away to Paris – where she’d have no responsibilities and plenty of time for fun. A pleasant dream, but one that Jack tells her won’t happen. And the shot of Elizabeth realising this is one of the more poignant in the movie. Great acting from Sarah Gadon.
But the movie perks up as we go back to Margaret explaining the night’s events to her parents. Their Majesties’ reactions to her asking what a knocking shop is make the film. Things get suitably awkward when Elizabeth brings Jack into the palace to have breakfast with everyone. That is, until Elizabeth tells them all about how Jack helped her and Margaret out all night. The King thanks Jack for everything he’s done, but warns him and Elizabeth not to mention this to anyone. I’m guessing that’s the movie’s way of winking to the audience and saying ‘yeah, none of this actually happened’.
Elizabeth asks Jack if he still plans to run away to France or Canada, but he doesn’t need to answer her. He does need to be on parade in thirty minutes. Cut to Elizabeth driving as fast as she can to the location in question. And as she’s a registered officer herself, she pulls some strings to say she had Jack out on official business – thus sparing him any backlash from being AWOL. Jack presents her with a flower, and leans in for a kiss – that the audience doesn’t get to see. They say goodbye in a bittersweet but still positive ending. Things end with Elizabeth warning the guard “not a bloody word.”
So it was really very funny that I even saw this movie at all. It was a choice between this and something else that I can’t remember. I was going through a phase of watching a lot of World War II stuff – so I went for this. And I did not expect I would enjoy it so much. This was one of my favourite films of 2015 and I couldn’t get enough of it. There was another World War II-themed film that came out last year – The Imitation Game – and I feel this succeeded where that one failed. Both were inspired by true events, but The Imitation Game was more of a Hollywood-ised biopic that warped history too much – and really undermined itself by trying to present itself as fact. This on the other hand is fully aware that it’s not meant to be taken as a factual account. It’s like Pocahontas, Anastasia, Inglorious Basterds, Centurion, Elizabeth etc. Just a good bit of historical fiction to be enjoyed. It’s a comedy with a great sense of humour, and also a great sense of heart. I left the cinema feeling both thoroughly entertained and really moved. I say this every time I mention it but more people need to see this movie. Definitely one of the hidden gems of 2015, and I’m glad I got to see it in the cinema.
Time to give you the grades, P-2.
*Story? The filmmakers are aware of what happens when ambitious young ladies go out on the town – and of how much funnier it is when the ladies are two royals who have never been out in public before. The fact that it doesn’t try to pass itself off as fact gets a huge mark up from me. B+
*Characters? They imagine that the young Princess Elizabeth was just like any other teenage girl – who wanted a night of fun for herself. The fact that the movie presents the class conflict in an unbiased way is really good too. A
*Performances? Flawless accents from Sarah Gadon and Jack Reynor, matched by near-flawless performances. The real star of the cast is Bel Powley. A lot of nice ‘one scene wonders’ scattered throughout the film in the various side characters. A
*Visuals? It’s a bit too dark visually at times, but I do love the look of this film. Nice cinematography gives this a bit of a retro feel, without putting it in sepia or the like. A-
*Special Effects? N/A
*Anything Else? The film blends the comedy and the seriousness very well, managing to move and amuse alternately at whim. A
We move from the past to the future, and then back to the past again. Next is X-Men: Days of Future Past.