RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE (2023)
When the feud between the son of the US President and an English prince threatens to drive a wedge in Anglo-American relations, the two are forced into a staged truce that sparks something deeper.
Despite some notable successes, romantic comedies haven’t delivered a compelling reason to believe it’s a genre that evolves with the times. Though recent years have seen an uptick in more diverse representation and innovative offerings—such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Love, Simon (2018), Palm Springs (2020), and Bros (2022)—none were credited with reinvigorating the genre in the way that, say, Jordan Peele and Blumhouse were for horror films.
That said, literary romance has never been more popular, or more diverse. It’s the highest-grossing genre of literary fiction, with a seemingly never-ending supply of new books for readers to devour. Amazon Studios’ Red, White & Royal Blue seeks to connect these two audiences in a rom-com notable from their past releases for its depiction of a gay love story.
Adapted from the wildly successful novel by Casey McQuiston, this hotly anticipated film manages to capture the charm of the book without straying from the hallmarks of the genre. Much like the enormous wedding cake that sets the two leads on a path to love, the film is sweet, indulgent, and enjoyable. There’s been much debate about the lack of representation of queer love in films, and even more about the efficacy or need for those representations in a mainstream genre as strictly defined and historically limiting as the romantic comedy, but Red, White & Royal Blue doesn’t concern itself with such debates. It would rather you just get swept off your feet and go along for the ride.
The story follows Alex Cameron-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar-Perez), the son of US President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman with a southern drawl that would make Tennessee Williams blush), who unexpectedly falls for Prince Henry of England (Nicholas Galitzine) after a public relations fiasco at a Royal Wedding forces them to make nice for the press. The fiasco in question is that the two men get into a testy argument and knock over the massive wedding cake at the reception, humiliating them and jeopardizing diplomatic relations between their two countries. Admittedly a far-fetched and fantastical framework, the film progresses to more grounded and sensitive territory as the two begin to fall in love.
Rather than try to reinvent the genre, Red, White & Royal Blue chooses to adhere to it, making it more formulaic than nuanced, but an enjoyable watch with a satisfying queer romance at its centre. Fans of the book will be happy with its faithfulness to the original text, though it does feel like a high-budget Hallmark movie. The film is heavier on romance than comedy, and the better for it, but achieves an earnest sweetness that prevents it from feeling stilted.
The stakes of the story are high due to the main characters being huge public figures, but this is the least interesting aspect of the story and prevents the film from diving deeper than surface level. With such big obstacles for them to face, the audience learns more about Alex and Henry from what they are reacting to as opposed to what choices they make as individuals, resulting in less satisfactory character development. They are both given full backstories, but these are only referenced briefly and not given much air time when matters of state interrupt a promising character moment.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Lopez, the film’s strongest moments are its love scenes, when the two protagonists aren’t weighted down by inconceivable plot devices or cheesy comedy bits. Lopez is an accomplished playwright, whose play about the AIDS epidemic The Inheritance had successful runs on both the West End and on Broadway, walking away with a Tony Award for ‘Best Play’.
Lopez is also the co-writer of Red, White & Royal Blue alongside Ted Malawar, and his literary chops elevate the dialogue slightly and lend authenticity to the story. Take away all the cumbersome trappings of the story and genre, and we’re left with a compelling love story. Perez and Galitzine have remarkable chemistry, allowing the audience to buy into the sillier aspects of the plot and root for them.
In particular, the intimate scenes are noteworthy for their tender and honest portrayals of gay sex, without sensationalizing or sanitizing it. Lopez’s direction in these scenes is most effective both for what he chooses to show and what he chooses to leave out. The film has an R rating in the US, but couldn’t be described as particularly graphic and there’s not much nudity. The intimacy he captures between Alex and Henry, by portraying their love affair as an emotional journey as much as a physical one, is moving. Not only that, he expertly balances between making their love story both feel universal and specific to their experiences as queer men. Alex’s character doesn’t strictly define his sexuality at the start of the film and must come to terms with being bisexual, while Henry struggles to live in the closet and directly in the public eye.
The larger story is unremarkable, even though it strains the boundaries of believability in its plotting. The fact a love affair between the President’s son and an English prince is the most believable aspect of the story only adds to the fun, which is primarily what the film is supposed to deliver. The supporting cast’s performances aren’t nearly as strong as its two leads, and they’re burdened with the clunkiest dialogue and exposition. Once the love story has been established and developed, the most interesting aspect of the film takes a back seat so the rest of the story can progress.
The film drags during its second half when the plot is ostensibly winding up, but in truth is getting bogged down with an unnecessary subplot about an impending US election and the need to maintain the secrecy of their relationship. Without spoiling too much, Alex and Henry are forced to decide whether their relationship can withstand the circumstances of their birth and social statuses and whether their connection is strong enough to justify the sacrifices they’d need to make to stay together.
Red, White & Royal Blue is successful in what it sets out to do, which is to satisfy fans of the novel and provide a fun diversion for new audiences, but it doesn’t seek to push or shock anyone. It meets expectations as a romantic comedy, doing so with a core love story we’re less accustomed to seeing, but that hardly makes the film revolutionary. It’s accessible in every sense: simple, straightforward beats meant to please everyone and challenge no one.
Considering the middling success previous gay films have had at the box office, a streaming-only release was the appropriate destination, making it more accessible for an audience who wouldn’t have turned out to see it in a cinema. The film is more remarkable for what it represents in the larger context of queer representation in media than for its merits as a film, but it’s well worth a watch nonetheless.
USA | 2023 | 118 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Matthew Lopez.
writer: Matthew Lopez & Ted Malawer (based on the novel by Casey McQuiston).
starring: Taylor Zakhar Perez, Nicholas Galitzine, Clifton Collins Jr., Sarah Shahi, Rachel Hilson, Stephen Fry & Uma Thurman.