It probably sounded like a good idea, before everyone rolled up his period-1945 sleeves, but the unintended consequences of “A Royal Night Out” become quickly evident in the erratically shifting tone, predictable situations and strenuous tippy-toeing around delicate issues that arise whenever you throw real-life people into the realm of fiction.
The film is not without its charms thanks largely to a splendid trio of young actors — Sarah Gadon, Jack Reynor and the amazing Bel Powley — but the film ultimately comes off like a trial-batch cream puff rather than a deep-dish apple pie.
This “little fantasy inspired by that true story,” as British director Julian Jarrold likes to put it, concerns the possibility that on the night of May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Night in the U.K., the two princesses, Elizabeth, 19, and Margaret, 14, actually did escape Buckingham Palace to go partying and dancing at the Ritz Hotel.
From this tiny factoid writers Trevor De Silva and Kevin Hood have spun a fanciful tale of how these two girls, soon separated not only from their military escorts but from each other, get swept up into a bacchanalian night of precarious adventures and places of dubious if not dangerous entertainments.
The obvious risks such a storyline takes should be obvious, but apparently they were not, at least to these filmmakers: How to bring off a fiction with dramatic punch and comic jeopardy featuring two very real-life people who certainly did not spend V-E Night in the manner depicted.
After all, one of those two real-life people is gone and can no longer defend herself while the other is, ahem, the current Queen of England.
So naturally things get very circumspect in terms of royal (mis)behavior: maybe a little underage drinking — after all, Margaret did later lead a controversial life — and a few innocent mistakes and wrong turns that propel each into small dangers. But the filmmakers aren’t at liberty to play fancy free with these two characters and this restriction straightjackets nearly every incident.
The tone switches constantly. Starting off as screwball comedy, especially in the highly unlikely manner in which Lilibet and ‘P2’ — as the two were then nicknamed — lose their escorts (Jack Laskey and Jack Gordon), the movie then veers into a highly clichéd “Roman Holiday”-like romance and later strange detours into darker material including wartime underground gathering spots such as brothels and gambling clubs that might be put to better use in a serious drama.
It’s not always clear how much the overly protected princesses understand about the tawdry world they’ve stumbled into as, for instance, Princess Margaret and a whore have a conversation in an auto ferrying them to a military party in which the dialogue is deliberately pitched at cross purposes.
What smoothes over some of the tonal irregularities are the film’s fine performances. Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, eye-catching in two David Cronenberg films, “A Dangerous Method” and “Maps to the Stars,” as well as the historical drama “Belle,” manages the trick of possessing the charms of a young woman coming into her own as well as a certain regal manner even in her girlishness.
Bel Powley, a knockout in ”Diary of a Teenage Girl” earlier this year, plays another mischievous underage teen but with a cheerful ebullience and gift for comic misunderstandings right out of a ‘30s screwball comedy.
She pretty much steals this show with her wide-eyed plunge into dancing the lindy hop and making friends with as many people as possible including a protective gangster (Roger Allam).
Jack Reynor holds down the middle as Jack, a war-weary, working-class bloke in RAF uniform who becomes an unwilling guide/escort to Princess Elizabeth albeit with his own secret.
That secret is telegraphed rather badly and the screenplay sells this character short by forcing the actor to play a single bitter note for nearly the entire evening but Reynor makes the best of it.
One puzzler is that the two girls are supposedly traveling through the night “incognito.” Yet nothing the director or costume designer do disguises them in the least. Other than the gentle suggestion by a palace staffer to P2 that her tiara is a dead giveaway, they sail into the night as themselves.
Yet no one recognizes either except at two points where the script demands they do so. London was certainly in a celebratory mood on V-E day but this gives a new meaning to the term blind drunk.
The most impressive thing about “A Royal Night Out” is the portrait of a capital city turned into a mad hatter’s ball. On a modest budget the movie manages to suggest the revelry of thousands in streets, pubs, nightclubs and hotels.
The northern English city of Hull was drafted to play 1940s London where 300 extras were apparently shuttled from location to location to suggest multitudes thronging various key spots.
Meanwhile two castles in the north ably filled in for Buckingham Palace while the crew did shoot outside the palace and in Trafalgar Square. Rupert Everett and Emily Watson stand in ably for George VI and his Queen Elizabeth.
But this verisimilitude fails to transfer over to a story that is too engineered for belief. Someone always rescues the princesses from jeopardy at the last minute. Then whenever the story turns down a potentially interesting side street, the writers are hamstrung by historical reality.
The Lilibet-Jack romance is never the least bit believable. Perhaps this represents a British wish fulfillment, that their current monarch had even once met a chap who could talk straight to her and give her the lowdown on how many Brits feel about their dysfunctional royals.
One huge plus here is the vintage American swing music that dominates the soundtrack.
Opens: December 4, 2015 (Atlas Distribution Co.)
Production companies: A Hanway Films presentation in association with Twinstone, Screen Yorkshire, Scope Pictures, Lipsync LLP, Filmgate Films, Film i Vast, The Northlight Studios, Lionsgate of an Ecosse Films production
Cast: Sarah Gadon, Jack Reynor, Bel Powley, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson, Roger Allam, Ruth Sheen, Jack Laskey, Jack Gordon
Director: Julian Jarrold
Screenwriters:Trevor De Silva, Kevin Hood
Producer: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Executive producers: Mark Woolley, Peter Watson, Thorsten Schumacher, Hugo Heppell, Peter Hampden, Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Laurence Dorman
Music: Paul Englishby
Costume designer: Claire Anderson
Editor: Luke Dunkley
PG-13 rating, 97 minutes