Using history for narrative inspiration can be a double-edged storytelling sword.
Granted you have a deep well on impossibly dramatic stories to dwell on, larger-than-life figures and epically heroic outcomes, all of which are custom made for big screen adaptation; however there is also the problem of historical elements not always taking place in a compressed enough timeframe or in a tidy linear progression which lends itself to audience-pleasing A to Z narratives.
The solution, of course, is to bend facts here and historical notes there to form the sort of story that will work well in a movie; Hollywood has done it for years, giving birth to that famously obtuse phrase “Based on a true story …”
But what if knowledge of a particular event is limited – where to then oh storytelling wizards?
In the case of the romantically delightful A Royal Night Out, you take what little you do know and extrapolate from there, imaging what it would be like if you were Crown Princess Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and Princess Margaret aka P2 (Bel Powley) and you were suddenly given the freedom of London on the night of VE Day.
Well, limited freedom anyway, with the King and Queen (played by Rupert Everett and Emily Watson respectively) laid down understandably strict rules for where their hitherto-cossetted daughters could venture on this historical night.
Chaperoned by stuffy military officers, who become far less so as the night wore on, the two princesses – sensible though longing for adventure Elizabeth and giddily excitable Margaret, invested by Powley with enough exuberant joie de vivre for 10 movies – embark on a world-opening excursion into a London celebrating the end of war in Europe and the many possibilities that opened up.
That, as far as it goes, is that as far as known history goes.
As a 2015 article in The Telegraph noted, the now Queen Elizabeth herself has confirmed the broad brushstrokes of events that led to the two princesses enjoying a fantastically rare night on the town, ostensibly to gauge the public’s reaction to the King’s speech marking the end of the war.
But once Elizabeth and Margaret are out the gilded doors of Buckingham Palace, little is known of what went on that night so screenwriter Trevor de Silva and Kevin Hood have free rein to imagine what a rare night of freedom might mean to the young royals.
True to the spirit of the feel good, sugary confection that A Royal Night Out turns into with beautifully-written comedy of errors narrative anchoring it all the way, their adventures are both substantially authentic – well as authentic as an imagined, fun-filled outing can be; suffice to say, you can imagine two teenagers, for that is what the princesses to all intents and purposes, relishing the change to let slip their normal responsibilities for one giddily exciting night – and deliciously, hilariously sitcom-ish.
Leavening out the chaotic joy of a light and fluffy narrative are some touching moments, particularly when Elizabeth, having met a decidedly anti-royal airman named Jack Reynor (Jack Hodges) and first sparred and then bonded with him, and he with her much to his reluctance, finds herself surprisingly challenged to reassess what she wants from life.
Not that she can act on those impulses or realisation since duty trumps all when everything is said and done, but the scene where she drops Jack back to his air base is inherently moving because it acknowledges that there must be a tension between obligation and inclination, no matter what your station in life.
That’s not to suggest that A Royal Night Out is a searing in depth exploration of the pressures of life of the royal family, and particularly that of Britain’s current ruling monarch, but one thing this delightful film full of bonhomie, laughs and riotously good cheer does well, is shed a little speculative light on what may be like.
It’s all fun and froth in large part, but it works because of that extra small substantial element that humanises Elizabeth and Margaret, and on a wider level, helps you to understand what it must have been like to live through such an important part of the twentieth century.
Another reason it works as well as it does, rolling a romantic comedy, a buddy comedy caper and an historical film into one, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously despite all those explorations of noblesse oblige vs. the unfettered indulgence of the human spirit.
A Royal Night Out is, at its core, a gleefully rich, spirited rollicking good time of a film, one which takes the kernel of a true story and makes merry with it, in the process delivering up a warm, funny and thoroughly enchanting movie that will have you laughing, sighing and wishing that everyone, no matter who they are, could get their fairytale ending.