Adapting a successful book is a difficult endeavour in and of itself, but recreating the success of a romance novel from page to screen can often feel like capturing lightning in a bottle — twice. Given that the genre is so deeply entrenched in introspection, the challenge is figuring out how to bring the concepts we only have access to while we’re inside the characters’ brains to live in exterior performance.
Since its release in 2019, Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White and Royal Blue has won the hearts of millions of readers with its depiction of a love tale between the son of a US president and a prince fourth in line to the British throne. A ubiquitous motif in the romance genre is two people who overcome great circumstances to achieve real love with one another.
Nonetheless, Hollywood has frequently failed to recreate the same charm in its own adaptations, partly due to the difficulties of presenting something so steeped in deep feeling in a stronger, more outer media.
All of this is to suggest that director Matthew López, who co-wrote the film based on McQuiston’s novel with Ted Malawer, succeeds in bringing this enemies-to-lovers romantic narrative to life for both beginners and ardent book fans. The most serious faults with Prime Video’s big-screen version, on the other hand, are found in inconsistent performances that even the greatest creative direction and interesting directorial choices can’t totally redeem.
The idea is simple: Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the First Son of the United States, and Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), the resident “spare” in the British royal family, have never been friends. Eventually, due to a complete cake-tastrophe akin to an international catastrophe that is splattered over the pages of every major daily and tabloid, the two are compelled to shake hands and make amends for the sake of good PR.
Naturally, Alex and Henry are dragged into one other’s orbit for the requisite photo ops and sharing interviews, during which they lie through their teeth about having always been close personal friends.
However, behind the scenes, they are given the opportunity to see new parts of one other that they have never seen before — and come to the mutual realisation that their first encounter was simply a case of two people getting off on the wrong foot.
Their snarking and competitive natures give way to desire, and before they realise it, they’ve embarked into a covert relationship, replete with sneaking away for quickies in public places and messaging each other all day and night.
Without going into spoiler territory (though fans who have read the book may not be entirely surprised by the film’s path), Red, White & Royal Blue’s biggest success is that it remains a romance at its core, but the film’s runtime unfortunately cuts into more opportunities to spend scenes with some of the delightful ensemble cast.
As U.S. Deputy Chief of Staff and longtime advisor Zahra Bankston, who becomes one of the first people to discover Alex and Henry’s secret relationship, with amusing results, Sarah Shahi is a force to be reckoned with, and Rachel Hilson brings an effervescence to the role of Nora Holleran, one of Alex’s closest friends, as he opens up to her about his sexuality.
Apart from them, the rest of the cast is given only a few moments to shine; Henry’s older brother Philip (Thomas Flynn) comes across as more of a caricature than a character, the prince’s BFF Percy (Malcolm Atobrah) is woefully underused, and Secret Service agent Amy (Aneesh Sheth) is so hilariously dry in every scene that you’ll be counting the minutes until she reappears in the story.
However, it appears that just one half of Red, White & Royal Blue’s starring combination is up to the challenge of exploring this romance in all of its complexities, or giving us as deep a glimpse into their character’s mind as we can get without physically having a line to their thoughts. As Prince Henry, someone who has been open about his sexuality his whole life and continues to do so out of what he deems a commitment to his royal duty, the struggle that plays out across his features is heartwrenchingly evident.
One sequence in particular, in which Alex is cruelly ignorant of Henry’s inner suffering while rambling on about all the things they’ll do together after his mother’s reelection attempt, demonstrates Galitzine’s searing emotional range.
Perez, on the other hand, tries his best to sell his share of the relationship, but even in the film’s most emotional passages, it appears as if a portion of him is holding back from fully committing to the character’s subtlety and desire. Some of this is most likely due to the huge disparities in Alex and Henry’s coming-out experiences.
As the prince himself points out at one point, Alex has an incredibly supportive family in the form of his POTUS mother (Uma Thurman, who sinks her teeth into every syllable of Ellen Claremont’s Texan drawl) and his senator father (a perfectly wielded Clifton Collins Jr.), whereas Henry has been told to bury his deeper longings for the sake of crown and country. Nonetheless, it appears like Red, White, and Royal Blue’s two protagonists are functioning on different emotional wavelengths.
All of this is to say that it’s exciting to see López make some fascinating creative decisions in his approach to this relationship, some of which put a unique perspective on what we’ve seen previously on-screen. For a while, Alex and Henry are separated by distance and duty, which implies a strong dependence on texting and phone conversations (yes, even them) in this day and age.
Rather than framing these late-night conversations with the actors in two separate rooms, López, along with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, flips the idea on its head by placing Perez and Galitzine in the same place — and sometimes even in the same bed — so we get the impression that they’re keeping each other company in a more intimate space despite the fact that they’re hundreds of miles apart in reality.
There’s also a particularly remarkable image during Alex’s New Year’s Eve party – one of those occasions where the rest of the partygoers fade away for only a few seconds, but López frames it as a point in time that goes on for what feels like an eternity. It’s one of the greatest parts of the movie that comes close to recreating the sensation of reading a romance story, as Alex and Henry get to gaze into one other’s eyes unblinkingly for the first time. Other moments, notably one featuring Alex’s old residence, are filmed at such a distance that it’s impossible to see faces, creating a disconnect between the protagonists and the spectator in what should be a joyous and incandescent moment.
Despite its flaws, Red, White, and Royal Blue is a charming and entertaining rom-com that introduces a welcome new perspective to the long-running genre — and Alex and Henry’s journey to love is sure to please both longtime McQuiston fans and newer arrivals looking for a mostly solid entry point into romance itself.