With the light of the sun scalding the tiles of the communal kitchen, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung bend and sway and hold each other’s hearts with each tango movement. They hold each other close, their foreheads pressing together, arms resting on shoulders or wrapping tight around waists, legs sliding sensually through the air while an accordion’s notes swirl around them. In Wong Kar-wai’s queer masterpiece Happy Together, Leung and Cheung are a couple whose passions and furies cannot be contained, and in Argentina in another last-ditch attempt to save their relationship, there are times when their friction can sometimes feel so right, like the spiderweb-like crack in glass right before it shatters.
But Leung and Cheung aren’t just lovers on the mend, but also signifiers of Hong Kong and Mainland China’s tempestuous, turbulent relationship, an inexorable magnetism to each other, like they’re halves of a whole, but a maelstrom-like incompatibility with who they are as they are now. Released in 1997 during the handover of Hong Kong from Britain back to China, Wong illustrated at once a striking allegory of geopolitical uncertainty but also a swooning romance rooted in the specifics and minutiae of a gay relationship on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with all the texture — velvet and shrapnel — that makes up the most entrancing romances.
Matthew Lopez’s adaptation of Casey McQuinton’s book Red, White, and Royal Blue is not trying to do that, that being some kind of fully, almost documentary-like realized examination of a gay relationship that also takes on national implications through metaphor. But it’s also not not trying to be that. While First Son of the United States with a working-class rager chip on his shoulder Alex Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) is snuggled up next to Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) in white bathrobes after a tryst, the American boy asks his British beau what his favorite movie is. Prince Henry responds with In the Mood for Love (which Alex has never heard of, natch) and calls it the “swooniest movie ever”. That film, too, has its historical and cultural context: over about three years, the director set the intoxicating film in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, amidst geopolitical and social transition and repression. Wong’s interest in the ever-evolving relationship between China and Hong Kong can also be summed up in the repeated use of a Nat King Cole song: “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…”
But where Wong’s films are heavily aestheticized, but stark and blunt about their transnational ambivalences, Red, White, and Royal Blue, by the nature of its genre conventions, is not, cannot, or perhaps is unwilling to be anything like that. It is fantasy, which is fine, one where Uma Thurman holds the highest office in the land and you can have a love-at-first-sight moment to “Get Low” by Lil Jon and the East Side Boys.
There’s a trade negotiation deal between the United States and Britain that is gestured towards, and Alex fights for voter rights, and his father talks about how he got gender-neutral bathrooms across Austin (fantasy twirling its baton), but Red, White, and Royal Blue’s politics don’t really seem to be concerned with creating a believable political landscape or context. Not any more than your average 2000s romantic comedy, your Bridget Jones’s Diary or The American President or what have you, where politics is more backdrop for romance, which opens up avenues to explore a small fistful of other valium approved themes. Fame, anonymity, personal and political responsibility, the usual.
Flashes of something deeper and more interesting appear, like when Prince Henry, who must remain closeted because there are no homosexuals in the Royal Family, says “Prince Henry belongs to Britain.” But the line is less compelling because of its homonational implications (I’m sure Jasbir Puar’s head is spinning), but more for what the movie really seems to be about: representation as politics in and of itself.
Matthew Lopez, the film’s director and co-screenwriter with Ted Malawer, gave himself an interesting challenge following his unbearable 7 ½ hour self-aggrandizing gay faux-fantasia The Inheritance, a play which seemed to be hailed as a second coming of Angels in America when it was staged in the UK and then garnered more polarized reactions upon its Broadway transfer. He must make a contemporary romantic comedy that must not feel try hard or didactic (Happiest Season, Bros) and must blend in, assimilate if you will, into a whole lineage of canonized straight iconography while also being itself, a promising beacon of the future for gay media, but also be appropriate enough smooth brain viewing, while also reinvigorating a genre long claimed to be dead.
Against all odds, he has mostly succeeded: Red, White, and Royal Blue is charming in its uncanny ability to gently update or rework extremely basic tropes of the genre. It does not spend too much time explaining or justifying itself. And while the budget Amazon and producer Greg Berlanti have given to this production belies a certain restraint given the epic circumstances (we’re dealing with two figureheads of state here), it is competently assembled.
If the romcom has been ailing due in no small part to changing sexual mores and communication techniques, Lopez fixes this by making both leads vaguely repugnant and self-satisfied, but in a manner that basically makes sense for their quarrel to lovers trajectory. But portrayed over text and WhatsApp, Lopez has an inventive workaround that addresses both the idea of imagining the person you’re talking to is there, but also the game of trying to discern tone when they’re not present. It all comes down to subjectivity and fantasy.
But that these two boys are so in-universe famous, that they’re literally public figures dealing with the notion of being a public and private person, makes the film tamp down on the political fantasy aspect of the film (trade alliance with Britain notwithstanding) and more an impassioned illusion about the political function of representation on its own terms.
That’s the more interesting film, the one where it doesn’t necessarily have the same smugness that Bros had because it appears, somehow and despite quite banal dialogue, more self-aware about the paradox of queer representation. On the one hand, as Alex argues when describing his political aspirations, he gets to be something — a young mixed Mexican-American bisexual — that his father never saw, and can be an inspiration for the future. On the other, exploitation of that public outness is around the corner. (Very “the [gay] relationship in the age of social media and surveillance” stuff happening.)
Certainly, that the sociopolitical landscape is a playground for schoolboy romance is really something when transphobia and homophobia are once again on the rise, fueled by the very news organizations and institutions that Alex and Henry use to flirt in the film. Which makes the exact kind of phantasmagoric social space that Red, White, and Royal Blue as uncanny as its ability to remind one of 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s a world where homophobia is still enough of an oppressive force that Prince Henry must still be closeted, but the Western World is progressive enough for it to ultimately be kind of a blip, that Texas is okay, the DNC is held at Barclays Center, and your Commander in Chief mom can talk to you about Truvada. Close and yet so far from where we are.
If there is disappointment to be had it’s the same usual complaint from me: I wish it were a little more, a little deeper, a little more idiosyncratic rather than a very good carbon copy and approximation of whatever legion of romcoms we have. Because when it comes down to it, Alex and Henry are passionate and loving in a very safe, PG-13 way, not so much flesh and blood people through whom these various geopolitical tensions can pass through via a kind of specificity and texture of performance and gesture as gay Memojis with a crown and an Uncle Sam button affixed to their animated faces. I will forget about these characters by the weekend’s close. Neither performance is especially interesting, it’s more that they fit of a piece. They’re not even What’s Up, Doc?-level of human or charismatic, they are merely attractive in a waxen way. Which is fine.
While Lopez at least has the mind to slip in a more sobering and philosophical question of what representation means in a post-Obama era (if not a post-Trump one), one wonders if he held back at all. This is the writer who spends the first ten minutes of his, again, 7 ½ hour long play telling the audience exactly what it’s about. Was there a more literary, theatrical, dramaturgically exciting version of the script? Then again, it’s not fair to judge a movie on what it could have been, or what you wanted it to be.
So what it is. A gay romcom of moderate (kinda neoliberal?) imagination of the intersection of genre and national politics that works best at establishing a fluffy world somewhat like our own, that has its own mild mannered questions about the tension between realism and idealism. Are there better gay romcoms now? Sure, like Fire Island. Is it perfectly fine? Yes, even enjoyable in a passive way, despite the leads’ boringness. Was it an evil genius move for Lopez to whip out a Perfume Genius cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”? Totally.
President Uma talks to us about our expectations about movie politics and representation and realism and idealism like she’s Lopez himself working within a bizarre entertainment industry that can at once spawn Midnight Cowboy and then decades later feel the clammy cold feet of releasing Bros. “They need me to be realistic so they can be idealistic,” she says. It’s a shame “radical” never entered anyone’s vocabulary. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…