Red, White & Royal Blue Is the Dumb Gay Romance of Your Dreams

The bestselling novel is now an amiably silly movie. 
‘Red White  Royal Blue Is the Dumb Gay Romance of Your Dreams
Photo: Jonathan Prime

The new film Red, White & Royal Blue (Amazon, August 11) is cheesy pablum. Based on Casey McQuiston’s hit novel of the same name, RW&RB tells the story of the handsome son of the U.S. President and the handsome grandson of the British king falling in love. It’s high gloss soap, done up in the garish hues and stagey patter of toss-off Hallmark holiday junk. I can’t wait to watch it a hundred more times.

Which is perhaps an embarrassing thing to admit as an adult in early-middle-age, but fuck it. I first read the book on the way home to visit my parents (well into my 30s), and had to stop every few pages to shake my head, chuckle to no one, and say “What a book.” Because RW&RB offers something rare even in this half-enlightened age: the chance for queer people, specifically men attracted to men, to be pandered to in the hokey fashion familiar to millions of straight consumers of those Hallmark movies, of those gooey Netflix romance shows, of myriad novels where cutesy people meet cutely and then tumble into the cutest kind of love.

RW&RB is not the first property to offer such things, certainly not if you count the endless supply of fanfiction inhabiting the internet. There have been gay made-for-TV holiday movies in recent years, and just last week, Netflix’s Heartstopper—about two British high school boys falling in love—debuted its cuddly second season. But RW&RB differentiates itself in crucial ways. It’s an Amazon movie about men in their 20s, which means sex can more readily enter the picture. And, again, it’s about the First Son of America sleeping with who is essentially Prince Harry. That ludicrous, perhaps even ethically dubious fantasy is unique to RW&RB.

In the story, Prince Harry is actually Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), a prim and proper child of the monarchy stiffly going about his duties. His future paramour Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) is a louche scenester, as serious about partying and (it’s vaguely implied) bed-hopping as he is about politics. Both guys are decent at heart, but they’re awfully rude to one another, possessed of a seething (one might say self-preservingly obsessive…?) mutual disdain. That all comes to a head (heh) at the wedding reception for Henry’s first-in-line brother, during which Henry and Alex get in an argument and wind up covered in wedding cake. 

This, in the tortured political schema of RW&RB, causes something of a scandal, threatening a trade deal between Alex and Henry’s countries and therefore the reelection chances of Alex’s mother, President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman). So the boys must publicly make nice to rescue the fate of their nations, which of course quickly leads to them making very nice in private.

As wariness turns to attraction turns to affection, Henry and Alex share bantery texts and phone calls, all done in the overly precious, faux-funny style—quippy, laden with pop culture references—of so much gushy, contemporary romance. But because it’s two men doing all this canned flirtation, the hoary stuff feels suddenly exciting. Or, at least, it did to me. Which may be more a matter for a therapy session than a movie review, but, again, fuck it.

RW&RB is certainly not without its faults. Directed by playwright (The Inheritance) and debut filmmaker Matthew Lopez, RW&RB is both airy and melodramatic, a relatively weightless movie that still wants us to ardently feel the passion passing between its leads. Textually, the movie doesn’t quite get us there—the novelty of the film’s existence is more significant than the actual romance. Galitzine is the slightly more seasoned actor, which is evident in the film’s heavier emotional scenes. Zakhar Perez’s high-wattage grin and offhanded charm don’t always compensate for flat line delivery, but he gets the job done well enough. No one is expecting Meisner here. 

There are also the issues of the film’s version of representation, which will no doubt be picked apart by some more skeptical folks who watch the film. (And inevitably, by those who don’t.) RW&RB is essentially a masc-for-masc love story about two jockish hard bodies whose most romantic moment arrives after they’ve dreamily toured the abs-and-pecs statues of London’s National Galleries. (Lopez’s camera casts a distinct gaze on these marble forms, too.) Henry and Alex are presented very safely, as wholesome hunks who probably won’t be slutting it up at Berghain any time soon. Though, they do have actual sex—certainly more graphically than we tend to get in generic romcoms, let alone in gay ones. Which is a fair representation of the happily, some might say gutsily, sex-filled book. 

Every other character in RW&RB, most of them women, are pretty much obsessed with Henry and Alex—all eyes point at the shifting dynamics of this central relationship, as if it is the most important thing in anyone’s lives. But isn’t that the way that all of these stories work, even the straight ones? The familiarity of RW&RB’s obnoxious indulgences are, in some ways, its greatest triumph: its version of storybook love is allowed to be just as annoying, in the same ways, as the heteros’. 

Some of my queer brethren may see that as a loss, or as a bad concession to heteronormative demands. Since its publication, RW&RB has been criticized for being targeted at straight women rather than queer men, so formulaic are its constructions, so palatable are its clichés. I understand that critique, and have felt those frustrations myself, including when reading and watching RW&RB. But we are fortunate enough to, right now, have a breadth of gay material available to us. If RW&RB feels like regressive nonsense willfully ignorant of reality, then maybe the very good new film Passages is playing near you. (If not, it will soon be on Mubi.) Maybe we can have it all!

Where else but in RW&RB can one hear Uma Thurman say “Truvada” and “bottoming” in a single scene, or watch as Stephen Fry, playing the king of England, sternly lectures two hot guys on sexual propriety and duty while in a simulacrum of Buckingham Palace? In his scene, Fry almost cracks a weary smile to the audience, nearly breaking the fourth wall as if to say to fellow travelers watching at home with some mix of swoon and cringe, “I know this is silly, but still.” But still! But still. Red White & Royal Blue is something we haven’t had before, which should perhaps count for a lot less than it does.