“Why have a ballroom with no balls?” trilled Princess Anna in Disney’s 2013 smash “Frozen,” voicing the social (and perhaps sexual) yearnings of any number of repressed, restless princesses in the fairy-tale universe — as well as, if the delightful “A Royal Night Out” is to be believed, the young Queen Elizabeth II herself. Imagining the alternately raucous and romantic exploits of the future English monarch and her sister Margaret as they are let loose upon London for one wild night of Victory in Europe celebrations, Julian Jarrold’s brightly performed exercise in speculative history scores as a frothier, more feminine bookend to “The King’s Speech” — though it’s no less engaging or accomplished. With public interest in British princessdom at a convenient high due to a certain new arrival, this glossy Lionsgate release (less coincidentally timed to capitalize on VE Day’s 70th anniversary) should ride a dual wave of topicality to royal B.O. returns at home.
“The life we live is not fully our own,” is the stern admonishment handed to 19-year-old Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and 14-year-old Margaret (Bel Powley) by their drawn-faced elders at the film’s outset, echoing the lesson in stoic self-denial learned by spirited tiara-wearers in films ranging from “Roman Holiday” to last year’s “Grace of Monaco.” As Elizabeth is reminded of her imminent responsibilities to her subjects by her father, George VI — a man who, of course, accepted his own with a considerable degree of nervous reluctance — he may as well be instructing her to “conceal, not feel.” As played here by Rupert Everett, the outgoing king cuts a more frail, fretful figure than Colin Firth did in his Oscar-winning “King’s Speech” interpretation: Like the earlier film, “A Royal Night Out” probes the tension between internal palace politics and external public relations, though they do so from opposite ends of the Second World War. With the devastating conflict over and national VE Day celebrations looming, speechmaking once more weighs heavily on the weary monarch’s mind.
Girls, on the other hand, just want to have fun. While their parents wish to welcome peacetime as solemnly as possible, the princesses — who have never previously been permitted out in public — are keen to feel firsthand the jubilation in the streets. Screenwriters Kevin Hood (no stranger to tweaking the biographies of English icons, having also penned Jarrold’s “Becoming Jane”) and Trevor De Silva have thus fashioned the pair’s one-night-only escape from their ivory tower as something of a fairy tale in itself. There are even shades of “Cinderella” as the skeptical Queen Mother (Emily Watson, extending her recent run of lavender-shaded mom parts), having hesitantly declared that they shall go to the ball, initially imposes a midnight curfew on their carousal. Only with her precociously canny powers of political persuasion does Elizabeth extend that restriction, arguing that more time spent out of Buckingham bounds will yield valuable insight into the public perception of the monarchy; Gadon’s deft, delicate performance depicts a girl not just coming of age, but growing into a less natural inheritance of status.
Swathed in sherbet-pink chiffon, with two bumbling lieutenants (Jack Laskey and Jack Gordon) as their chaperones, Elizabeth and Margaret are bundled off to Chelsea Barracks for a night of relatively regimented revelry. The sisters, however, have other ideas: Impatient to see the real people’s party, the girls manage to lose their minders and venture incognito into the London night — only to swiftly lose each other in the hubbub. As dynamic ditz Margaret is swept away on a tide of booze, boys and double-decker buses, Elizabeth enlists the help of bemused, cynical and staunchly anti-royalist young soldier Jack (Jack Reynor) to track her down amid the roaring crowds.
As their shambolic search takes them from the thick of Trafalgar Square to the seamy backstreets of Soho to the salt-of-the-earth East End, a tender emotional rapport develops between these two impossibly matched allies; for Elizabeth, it’s a bittersweet glimpse of the ordinary life she can never be granted. (Still, the young princesses had it better than their successors: In this age of media-wide royal baby photos, it’s hard to imagine these two near-adults going unidentified in public.)
It’s this streak of inevitably unfulfilled romance that lends a certain wistful, stiff-upper-lip gravitas to the film’s otherwise cheery parade of hijinks, ably staged by Jarrold (in his first theatrical feature since 2008’s musty “Brideshead Revisited”) with the brisk, brittle energy of the postwar Ealing comedy machine. In a role that may foster some audience confusion with his namesake Jack O’Connell, the superb Irish thesp Reynor is a wonderfully rakish, limber-witted foil for the more nervy Gadon; often cast in more startlingly remote roles, the Canadian actress etches the conflicting impulses and default decorum of the nascent QE2 with a suitable balance of pithiness and poise. Winningly goofy in a role conceived principally as broad comic relief — notwithstanding the age-inappropriate peril in which Margaret consistently places herself — Powley consolidates her head-turning breakthrough earlier this year in Sundance hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
Shot in the U.K. and in Belgium, the pic conjures a flavorful sense of period from a none-too-exorbitant budget: The crowd scenes, in particular, carry an authentic sense of clamor and chaos. (It’s the morning-after carnage, if anything, that looks a little too sparsely tidy onscreen.) Laurence Dorman’s textured production design and Claire Anderson’s spiffy, personality-rich costumes convince all the way across the class ladder; both are given an antiqued glow by the characteristically sumptuous, deep-hued lensing of Christophe Beaucarne (“Mood Indigo,” “Coco Before Chanel”). The film’s soundtrack covers the expected range of Glenn Miller-style brass and Lindy Hop bounce, situating proceedings as surely and squarely in 1945 as the endearingly outdated colloquialisms (“Wizard!” “I’m completely cheesed off!”) that pepper the script.