The Red, White & Royal Blue movie is finally here, and you probably want to know two things: Is it as bad as the initial marketing made out? And, is it as fruity as the book is?
For those who have managed to swerve the mega-selling behemoth that is American author Casey McQuiston’s 2019 New York Time’s Bestsellers List YA novel, there may be confusion as to what the fuss is about.
In summary, the story of Alex and Henry is one of love, triumph over adversity, and an epic amount of emails that are both horny and utterly romantic.
Alex is the son of the first female US President, and Henry is a ‘Prince of England’, and somewhere in the line of succession to the throne. Alex hates Henry, and Henry maintains an icy cool stiff upper-lipped appearance in front of everyone, further compounding free-spirited Alex’s rage.
Occasional acquaintances at the sorts of events that throw political and regal ‘spares’ together, an incident at a royal wedding forces Alex and Henry to spend time together as part of an image-restoration PR exercise.
If you’ve read the book, or if you understand the YA genre of novel, you can probably guess what happens next. Needless to say, whilst Alex’s mum Does Politics, and Henry’s family Does Homophobia served with a side order of Unresolved Grief, the pair fall in love.
None of this is a spoiler – it’s all in the trailer for the film, or the blurb on the back of the book.
A diverse cast of supporting characters supplies the supporting layers of plot whilst Alex and Henry work through personal revelations, political shenanigans, and a lot of cross-Atlantic flights.
The film has a lot to potentially pack in, and has very definitely gone for a ‘spirit of the book’ rather than a ‘letter of the book’ approach.
It is the nature of an adaptation, and especially one afforded under two hours of screen time, that cuts will have to be made, and here that means the disappearance of some favourite characters, and significantly reduced roles for others.
Many of these cuts have been apparent since early production shots and marketing images began to emerge. Fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative, and those approaching the material afresh may well have been unsure as to what this film was, and why they should care.
Thankfully, later marketing, and especially the trailer, relieved worry, and started to offer a glimpse into the film version of Alex and Henry, and their story.
When considered on its own, this is a decent film.
Taylor Zakhar Perez (Kissing Booth 2 & 3; Cruel Intentions) as Alex and Nicholas Galitzine (Purple Hearts; Cinderella) as Henry have amazing chemistry, and the dialogue between them, overwhelmingly written by co-writers Matthew Lopez and Ted Malawer, rather than lifted from the novel, is snappy and quick-witted. Think classical Hollywood screwball comedy – with smartphones – and you’ll understand the vibe the movie is striving for, and which it often hits.
In a rumoured bid to avoid offending the actual royal family, Queen Mary has become King James III (Stephen Fry – Heartstopper; The Sandman), and, with that flip, a considerably more nuanced character.
Fry makes much of his one scene, especially his introductory ‘business’, as he ratchets up the tension and commands the room. You may well however find yourself unable to avoid comparing him to the actual King Charles III, whose clothing and mannerisms Fry appears to be channelling.
With so many secondary characters absent, those that remain are those most integral to the plot.
It’s a relief that White House Chief of Staff Zahra Bankston (Sarah Shahi – Sex/Life; Chicago Fire) is one of those who has made the cut. Shahi has some amazing scenes, with whip smart speeches, and you can easily understand how Zahra rose to such heights within Ellen Claremont’s (Uma Thurman – Kill Bill; Pulp Fiction) leadership team.
There is the occasional mis-step.
A scene which uses music featuring bagpipes led to much head-scratching for that choice, and the initial pace of the film is so quick that it can be disorientating to understand who everyone is, and their role in the narrative.
The biggest change, which causes the biggest problem, is in the attempt to present on screen the emails between Alex and Henry.
These are a key component of the novel, especially with the book being told from Alex’s point of view. The emails are how we are presented with, and come to understand, Henry’s inner thoughts.
It is obviously very difficult to relate the contents of what are essentially the modern-day version of impassioned love letters in the primarily visual format of film. Lopez, also serving as Director, makes a valiant attempt, and for the text messages between Alex and Henry, the attempt succeeds.
For the emails, the choice to use what broadly amounts to a montage passes too quickly. Additionally, with not enough acknowledgement of the volume of correspondence, it’s not clear to the audience how often Alex and Henry have been corresponding, or how heartfelt the declarations they each make are.
This decision to accelerate the pace of this section of the story means that we do not have enough understanding of Henry’s conflict between his understanding of his duty to his country, and his desire to live his life authentically.
The result of this is that what should be a dramatic high-point at the end of the second act of the film instead becomes a moment of ‘huh?’ – unless you know the novel, and can therefore fill in the back story yourself.
There are a number of iconic scenes in the novel, and most of these make it to the screen, albeit it some of them in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ reference.
On occasions, Lopez uses these iconic scenes in original and creative ways, and it’s at these points that the film soars, and the story becomes compelling. Indeed, it’s often when taking the original aesthetic, but using a fresh approach that the film is most enjoyable – rather than being weighed down with the expectation that those iconic scenes will be recreated beat-for-beat.
There is an awful lot of fan service here – and it will take repeated viewings to spot all of the various ‘Easter Eggs’ from the novel. Lopez has also dealt with some things which never made sense, whilst also minimising some of the potentially problematic elements that were present in the book.
The tone of the film
To the second question – is it as fruity as the novel?
Well, whilst informally a ‘12’ here, it’s rated ‘R’ in the US, and the trailer doesn’t shy away from showing Alex and Henry kissing. Somewhat forcefully. Whilst wanting to avoid spoilers, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’.
Alex and Henry are in their early twenties, they’re both adults, and they both know what they want – which is each other. It’s more note-worthy than it should be that this movie shows us queer men being unapologetically (and safely) sexually active, and without anyone attacking them for that specific aspect of their relationship.
In refocusing the narrative to be more about Alex and Henry’s relationship, and less about the political upheaval of the United States in c2016, Lopez has tightened the story to focus on how queer relationships develop, how essential queer liberation is, and how queer-ness does not need to be apologised for – or explained.
Walking a difficult tightrope between rewarding fans, and being accessible to newcomers, Red, White & Royal Blue is an enjoyable romp of a story. Delivering genuine comedy and a compelling romance, this is an entertaining film with a lot of heart, and a playful sense of fun.
RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE will premiere globally on 11 August, exclusively on Prime Video
Image Credits: All images, including Featured Image, courtesy of Prime Video