The “prince of England’s hearts” falls for the American president’s son (or is it the other way around?) in “Red, White & Royal Blue,” an effervescent gay rom-com that might be easily dismissed as a mere trifle, were it not for the still-historic novelty of its existence. Arriving less than a year after “Bros,” director Matthew López’s Amazon-backed, R-rated lark goes even further to normalize queer romance on-screen, taking a classic “chick flick” premise — the kind once reserved for Mandy Moore and Amanda Bynes movies, à la “Chasing Liberty” or “What a Girl Wants” — and recasting it with dudes.
Are gay men the target audience? No question, although “Red, White & Royal Blue” (adapted from the book by Casey McQuiston) reminded me more of that surprising subsection of manga known as “yaoi” — or “boys’ love” comics — marketed primarily to young female readers. These stories, which typically feature slender, slightly androgynous male characters (their distinguishing bits censored by Japanese law) in swoony and often explicitly lustful self-discovery, are fantasy fodder for far more than just representation-seeking queer kids. Girls love ’em, too, and it seems safe to assume they’ll feel the same way watching Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) and first son Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) developing the “special relationship” between England and the U.S.
When Henry and Alex reunite at the royal wedding — Henry’s poncy older brother, Philip (Thomas Flynn), is getting hitched — they can hardly abide one another. Alex is the son of two working-class Texas politicians: the country’s first woman president (Uma Thurman, sporting an LBJ-sounding Southern accent) and a senator of Latino descent (Clifton Collins Jr.). As far as he’s concerned, Henry’s a stuck-up snob. The prince, meanwhile, sees Alex as uncouth and obnoxious, and he does his best to avoid the tipsy American during the ultra-posh nuptial reception … until the extravagant two-story wedding cake topples over the two of them.
It’s a memorable gaffe, though López (the writer of the two-part, six-hour, multiple-Tony-Award-winning queer play “The Inheritance”) stages it all quite awkwardly, to the extent that one fears his directorial debut will be a disaster. It’s not a good sign when the movie opens with an exposition-bloated TV news segment, and feels even wincier when likable actors are given lines like “OK, you’ve been yucking my yum all day” (that one delivered by Alex’s bestie, Rachel Hilson). And then, just a few scenes later, López finds his groove and the whole things starts to work, looking no worse than a hundred overlit, backlot-shot studio rom-coms, and featuring some pretty funny zingers to boot (López shares screenplay credit with “Halston” writer Ted Malawer).
After the cake fiasco lands them on the cover of every tabloid, Henry and Alex are ordered by their respective governments to play nice. That means posing for photos together, trying to sound pally for TV interviews and so forth, while sniping at each other when the journos aren’t looking. This stretch is all a bit rushed, spanning several months as the two straight-acting (but meticulously well-manicured) bachelors keep in touch by text message, striking up a rapport López illustrates by putting the two characters in the same frame and then spontaneously bursting the one who’s not there into a million CG butterflies. The trouble with that device is that it puts audiences ahead of the couple, such that their first kiss doesn’t come as a surprise.
What is surprising is just how far López is willing to take their attraction, featuring sex scenes that don’t shy away from reflecting what these two studs do to one another without revealing any body parts that might offend the Japanese censors. Getting to know one another after one early tryst, Henry and Alex discuss their unwieldy full names. “I thought Alexander Gabriel Claremont-Diaz was a mouthful,” says the first son, to which Welsh prince Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor suggestively replies, “He is.”
Anyone watching “Red, White & Royal Blue” is surely prepared to accept this couple, but that’s hardly true of the wider world — or the fairy tale-adjacent one in which they live — which means that Henry and Alex have to worry about keeping their passion on the down low. Here, the abundance of recent coverage of both Princess Diana (for whom the crown became a cross to bear) and her younger son Harry (who renounced his title after marrying for love) give audiences ample context to appreciate what’s at stake.
Here, the Prince of Wales must answer to his father, the king (played by Stephen Fry). Meanwhile, on Alex’s side, his Democrat mom is desperate to get reelected, and the whole gateau-gate controversy was bad enough. When the news finally does break, it’s at the hands of one of Alex’s former flings, D.C. reporter Miguel Ramos (Juan Castano, who played the lead role in the Los Angeles production of “The Inheritance”). This twist, while consistent with the Nickelodeon-level plotting throughout, is treated in such a way that audiences are encouraged to think about the consequences when the media outs celebrities, depriving them of “our decision when to share our truths and queer identities.”
While most of the movie functions as wish-fulfillment fantasy, López takes the Trojan horse approach to raise issues of HIV prevention, consent and personal privacy alongside the film’s most important political point: namely, that queer romances can be every bit as corny as their hetero counterparts. As political platforms go, that’s hope and change all rolled up in one.