There’s a world in which the film adaptation of Casey McQuiston’s novel Red, White & Royal Blue captures the horny energy and political idealism of its source material. It would be a campy romp that leans into the book’s bubble-gum logic without losing sight of what made the novel an immediate bestseller.
The version of Red, White & Royal Blue that we have, directed by Tony-award winning playwright Matthew López (The Inheritance) and premiering on Amazon Prime, lands like a fever dream. It’s a tangle of odd tones, roving direction and eccentric performances — a frenetic combo that makes it hard to buy the drama of this fantasy.
Red, White & Royal Blue
The Bottom Line
A well-meaning but wobbly adaptation.
It shouldn’t be so tough. The story — the son of the U.S. president falls in love with a British prince — is charming in its improbability. Red, White & Royal Blue takes place in an alternate timeline, when the 2016 presidential election is won by Ellen Claremont, a Texas Democrat played by Uma Thurman, adopting a geographically unmoored accent. Her historic win thrusts her family — Mexican husband Oscar Diaz (Clifton Collins Jr.) and son Alex (The Kissing Booth’s Taylor Zakhar Perez) — into the public eye.
Life as the president’s kid is not easy for Alex, a college student still trying to figure himself out. His fictional predecessors, like Katie Holmes in First Daughter and Mandy Moore in Chasing Liberty, spent their years in the White House bending the rules and escaping Secret Service surveillance. Alex, however, isn’t trying to run from the executive branch. The First Son wants to work on his mother’s re-election campaign: He’s got a plan to “flip Texas,” he repeatedly says throughout the film. But first, he needs to prove he’s not a liability.
Fans of McQuiston’s novel will delight in where Red, White & Royal Blue starts. López’s screenplay (written with Ted Malawer) plops us into the action of Cakegate, the chaotic confectionary event that lands Alex and Henry (an assured Nicholas Galitzine) on the cover of newspapers around the world. A barbed exchange, in which America’s First Son confronts the British heir about his chronic rudeness, leads to the pair falling into a towering cake at Henry’s older brother’s wedding.
The scandal infuriates Alex’s mother and somehow also jeopardizes diplomatic relations between the United States and England. Ellen and her chief of staff, Zahra (played with delicious edge by Sarah Shahi), instruct Alex to fix this public relations nightmare. He needs to return to the palace, make nice with Henry and convince the world the two are best friends.
So begins a classic tale of enemies turned lovers. Red, White & Royal Blue has an Austenian bent: Alex’s irreverent personality makes him a kind of Elizabeth Bennet surrogate, while Henry’s inability to express his emotions puts him in the Darcy camp. Their romance starts on a similarly frosty note, but after Alex witnesses a softer side to Henry, the two engage in a long-distance courtship.
The leads have an endearing chemistry, but it’s not enough to make you believe the two are more than just good friends. Their congenial, almost school-boyish, air and prickly banter initially evoke Netflix’s popular YA drama Heartstopper. But Red, White & Royal Blue doesn’t want us to just coo at the central couple; the film wants us to turn us on, too.
The movie’s problems indeed are amplified when the relationship between Alex and Henry gets steamier. There’s a studied quality to their intimacy, which doesn’t help ease the film’s internal tension between the Disney Channel tone of its screenplay and its aspirational eroticism. (That this movie has an R rating despite its tame sex scenes is baffling, and part of a broader conversation that needs to be had about the MPA and queer sexuality.)
Jagged transitions between Henry and Alex’s puppy love and their dirty talk make it hard to stay anchored in the film’s world. Their first kiss, which happens under what looks like a computer-generated oak tree, is followed by suggestive scenes of the couple passionately caressing and making out in the White House, at a charity event in England and in Paris. (I’m still thinking about how these two find the time and the private jets to cross the Atlantic Ocean so often.) These moments — reaching for carnal pleasure but landing somewhere in fleeting-sizzle territory — rarely texture the narrative’s emotional trajectory.
Like all adaptations, Red, White & Royal Blue walks a tightrope between fidelity and innovation. You can see the film straining to balance the novel’s themes with its own desires to be a celebratory and anthemic vision of queer love. It’s an ambitious aim and, although they aren’t mutually exclusive goals, the film doesn’t commit enough to its own narrative to ensure either one’s success.
Too-brief conversations between Alex and his best friend Nora (an underused Rachel Hilson) establish early on that half of this intercontinental couple is still navigating the contours of his sexuality. Henry knows he’s gay, but his life as a prince pressures him to conduct his affairs in secret. Alex, on the other hand, has never seriously considered he might be bisexual. But the relationship isn’t just plagued by the usual mix of repression, self-discovery and familial acceptance; its stakes are also heightened by diplomatic implications and public scrutiny.
For a film concerned with politics — especially imagining a more optimistic reality — the civic plotlines of Red, White & Royal Blue feel more like appendages than critical parts of the narrative. Alex’s wish to help his mother’s campaign is never sufficiently grounded in a firm sense of the character’s own political compass, and Henry’s attempt to upend the monarchy’s homophobia doesn’t quite pay off as it should. Here again, a tonal dissonance nags: Encounters between Alex and his mother’s campaign team live in the satirical world of Veep, while his adventures at Buckingham Palace hew closer to Amanda Bynes in What A Girl Wants.
There are a couple of moments in Red, White & Royal Blue, when Alex and Henry both recite weighty, consequential monologues about how their relationship nurtured their respective ideas about love, that give us a glimpse of what the film wants to be. They are sweet scenes — important junctures in the characters’ development, and in the story. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were also pitches to the audience, trying to persuade us of what could have been instead of what is.