Nicholas Galitzine and Taylor Zakhar are a joy to watch in charming but standard-issue queer sensation
Story: Based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Casey McQuiston, the film follows the romance between Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of the American President, and Prince Henry, a potential heir to the British throne. Once adversaries, the two forge their new relationship, while confronting the repercussions it may have on their public lives.
Review: Perhaps, the biggest weapon in Matthew Lopez’s arsenal as a filmmaker, who is a celebrated Tony-winning playwright making his feature directorial debut, is his immense capacity for unlocking the emotional beats of a scene. He isn’t interested in taking big swings but is steadily inclined to give his actors space for performances that beautifully play off one another, luxuriously soaking in a fine blend of humour and heartbreak. There aren’t many surprises in the terrain of the material he is working with. Most of the narrative panders to a certain calcified generic template; you know where this story is heading but Lopez keeps us firmly rooted and invested in his world.
The leads, Nicholas Galitzine and Taylor Zakhar Perez, share an electric, crackling chemistry that instantly pulls the viewer in. Both are incredibly charming performers on their own, landing each back-and-forth banter their characters engage in with considerable ease. In the film’s winsome opening scene at the wedding reception of Prince Henry’s brother, Alex, who is among the guests, notes Henry’s off-putting characteristic smugness. It is an expectedly dazzling event, replete with a gigantic cake, but whose performance of elegant manners makes Alex uppity, gauche and like a fish out of water. Lopez quickly establishes a playful tension between Alex’s flamboyance and Henry’s savoir-faire. The uptight Henry vents his annoyance at Alex being rather too ‘animated’ and passes him off as irritating. Alex insists Henry is not quite as charismatically tall as he is made out to be. At the event, a debacle with the cake happens, landing them in hot water. Alex returns to America to an exasperated mother (Uma Thurman),who is contesting re-election, and whose hopes for a trade deal with the UK are potentially marred by the embarrassing episode. As damage control, she sends him back to make amends with the Prince and the royal family.
The film revels in the sheer power and thrilling dynamism of their equation, which got off on a bad footing. Henry hadn’t been particularly friendly at a party years ago when Alex was starting out on his public life with his mother winning the presidential election. The slight stuck with Alex, who kept grudging Henry thereafter. He has no other reason to hate on Henry but in the purview of his politics geared to public service, the royal family exists solely as an entirely dispensable, antiquated entity. Of course, being condescendingly dubbed as America’s Prince Henry does not quite help Alex in having any charitable feelings toward Henry or his family. Where the film soars in building those sparks that develop between the two. Perez and Galitzine bring oodles of cheekiness and burning passion as Alex and Henry rib off, dismiss, deride, make fun of each other and find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other. The screenplay, which Lopez co-wrote with Ted Malawer, has its whip-smart energy at its best, especially in the portions Alex and Henry are discovering and acting upon the palpable mutual attraction. But the film is particularly jarring when it feels the need to forcefully press and sharpen the differences between the two vis-à-vis their individual sense and understanding of public duty. Alex is driven by an urge to work in the interest of the public good. He is born of immigrant heritage, which only makes him more conscious of the necessity and power of giving back to his people, and it propels him during his mother’s Presidential re-election campaign in her home state of Texas. Henry, on the other hand, dutifully attends to his royal obligations, while aching for a life as a writer in Paris.
In a superbly restrained scene, as Alex professes his love, the camera stays on Henry’s face, registering what it would require of him. Galitzine beautifully grounds Henry’s throbbing anguish, fear and uncertainty in embracing the implications of the relationship. This critical moment which makes Henry realise he must pull away before further ramifications finds a devastating rendition in Galitzine as Henry quietly takes in Alex’s dreamy desire. There are far greater stakes at play for Henry. As he himself puts it, he is weighed down by the crown’s history and its role in the lives of the British public. His denying his own private needs for keeping his royal legacy unruffled takes centre-stage as the film’s later, central dilemma, but whose impact gets diluted by a clutch of grubby dialogues and formulaically conceived circumstances. At one point, Henry wonders about being able to afford to go from being the ‘Prince of Hearts’ to the ‘Prince of Shame’. I suspect such grating bits are gleaned from the novel itself, considering the gravitas and halting momentousness the film ascribes to them. As long as the film circles the two actors perfecting the teasing and flirtatious mode, it pleasantly cruises past the bumps. But the film reveals its limited gaze upon the tussle between public and private by hastening the proceedings when Alex confronts an evasive Henry and reassures him he is ready to wait for as long as he needs. The delicacy with which Lopez approaches scenes of intimacy, a standout sex scene exquisitely directed that acknowledges the tentativeness and mutuality of the moment, is traded for a sledgehammer-like, overwritten and terribly blunt tone when it comes to establishing the vital contexts. There are also stilted dialogues diligently coaching us against the forced conformity in coming out of the closet as well as the queers’ right to simply not to.
There’s a sense of interiority acutely missing and the rushed energy substantially waters down the bracing yearning. However, Lopez, along with an excellent Galitzine, never entirely loses his grip. He intermittently yanks us back into the film with a gorgeously tender night scene at a museum, as Henry and Alex dance to Can’t Help Falling In Love. But the denouement, tightly wrapped in generous doses of fantasy, demands a romantic imagination of a happily-ever-after. This would have been fine, had not the film also poked, with a casual, careless, overarching curiosity, into topical anxieties regarding legacy, privacy and reclaiming ownership of one’s narrative. The film suffers from an awkward disjunction between its bungee jumps into heightened stakes and extreme degrees of idealism served up with a pretty neat bowtie.
Verdict: Largely because of Galitzine and Perez’s screen-popping chemistry, Red White & Royal Blue feels fresh and swoony, despite ample derivativeness in the textual material. But it frequently gets bogged down by an utter lack of clarity in tone and texture. It cannot seem to make up its mind about the conviction in its romcom mould and the rougher edges come off as starkly unconvincing and glossed over.