‘Like it was written by ChatGPT’

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Amazon Prime video’s adaptation of Casey McQuiston’s hit 2019 LGBTQ+ romance novel is disappointingly predictable and clichéd, writes Louis Staples.

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The best romantic comedies have a specific skill: they can make us surrender our most basic ideas about what we consider to be realistic or plausible, even if they are grounded in a world we mostly recognise. That’s exactly what we’re asked to do in the opening minutes of Red, White & Royal Blue. The film – an adaptation of the 2019 romance novel by Casey McQuiston – stars a fictional British royal family. The US has its first female president, Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman), whose son Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez) is a handsome, energetic trouble-maker searching for his purpose in life.

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On a diplomatic trip to the UK for a royal wedding, America’s “first son” Alex reignites his long-time rivalry with prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), brother of the heir to the British throne. After causing a scene during the wedding, the duelling pair are forced to embark on some PR damage control to soothe transatlantic relations. Soon, they end up seeing a different side to each other. One thing leads to another and, well, you can probably imagine what happens next.

From the start, the film’s aesthetic and tone feel akin to a big-budget Hallmark movie. It has all the predictable stereotypes: British people are uptight. And Americans? They’re loud and obnoxious! Groundbreaking. It also features all of the genre’s staple montages: the “getting to know each other” montage, the sex montage and, of course, the “it’s all fallen apart” montage just before the end. Even for a romcom – a genre that is often pretty up-front about being formulaic – there is very little that feels unexpected.

The romcom genre’s recent embrace of LGBTQ+ relationships has prompted debate about the type of representation queer audiences want, versus the stories that are getting made into films. There is a lingering scepticism that mainstream films featuring LGBTQ+ people are primarily made for straight audiences, while some queer romcoms, like Billy Eichner’s 2022 film Bros, have been seen as a missed opportunity to be more inventive with the genre’s tropes. From the outset, it’s certainly clear that Red, White & Royal Blue is not trying to revolutionise queer storytelling. And although both characters deal with the shared experience of coming out, they are navigating such specific and privileged circumstances that it would seem ridiculous to expect them to be representative of the wider queer community.

The film loses its sense of fun when it veers away from being a relatively silly love story and gets too detailed about the fictionalised specifics of Anglo-American relations. Even prestige TV shows like Succession and House of Cards have struggled to make audiences fully buy into a political landscape without big real-life players, like Donald Trump. Things get even worse when the film attempts to portray fictional royalty. Although McQuiston’s novel was written before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepped down as working royals in 2020, the script leans heavily into the story of the real-life “spare” and his American wife. It’s unfortunate that there is a noticeable dip in the quality of dialogue between the film’s British characters, who are largely reduced to wooden and humourless caricatures. Not even Stephen Fry, the UK’s fictional king, could make the creaky script sing.

Despite being at least 30 minutes too long, with a script that often sounds like it was written by ChatGPT, there are moments where Red, White & Royal Blue is strangely entertaining. The film is at its best when it stops being so earnest and leans into the more eccentric moments that probably would arise in such unusual circumstances. There are small exchanges that take you by surprise, like when Alex comes out to his mother – in the Oval Office, of course – and she launches into an unexpectedly educated and supportive monologue about anal sex and the various sexual health precautions Alex should consider. “You’re ridiculous!”, he responds. “I can’t believe they gave you the nuclear codes!”.

There are also subplots that should have been explored more, like that focusing on a jealous gay journalist who outs the couple in the media. The opening scenes – where the prince and first son loathe each other – are the most fun, but their rivalry ends too soon. Perhaps there might have been interesting (and even humorous) ways to further explore the differences between Alex defining as bisexual and Henry as gay, and how that manifested in their relationship.

There are distinct tiers of romcom, and on paper, Red, White & Royal Blue sounded like it might be akin to 2001’s The Princess Diaries, except with more sex scenes and jokes about Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga. But while the pop-culture references and intimacy are there – no one could argue that the film is de-sexualised or sanitised – it’s doubtful that it will have anywhere near the cultural impact of Anne Hathaway’s film debut. Red, White & Royal Blue sits in an awkward space: it isn’t quite “so bad it’s good” enough to fully feel like a Hallmark movie, or Netflix’s cheap and cheerful festive films like Single All the Way (2021) and The Knight Before Christmas (2019). But it’s also not good enough to be remembered as a classic romcom, or to become the subject of cultural conversation, like Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island or Eichner’s intensely discoursed Bros (both 2022).

Aside from the vaguest progressive platitudes, Red, White & Royal Blue doesn’t make any astute observations about romance, privilege or being LGBTQ+. Whether or not you’ll enjoy it probably depends on your expectations. If you’re looking for a film about beautiful men with perfect hair and sculpted abs, which doesn’t demand too much from you, then it might be for you. But if you’re expecting it to be in the grade of romcoms that are laugh-out-loud hilarious and actually say something interesting about relationships – or anything beyond lazy clichés – then you’ll be royally disappointed.

★★☆☆☆

Red, White & Royal Blue is released on Amazon Prime Video on 11 August

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