Many a high school student has cracked open a copy of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy of star-crossed lovers only to be confused in the first few pages: Romeo is in love with some girl called Rosaline? In Shakespeare, Rosaline is never seen, and as soon as he meets Juliet, the titular lovelorn hero laughs off his previous infatuation. The rest is literary and theatrical history.
Karen Maine imagines an alternate history for the lovers and a fiery leading role for the ex relegated to Shakespeare’s sidelines. As the film opens, the sharp-tongued and whip-smart Rosaline is secretly meeting Romeo on her balcony (sound familiar?) – as a Capulet cousin, they’ve been conducting a clandestine romance. But Rosaline knows her uncle, Lord Capulet, has a masquerade coming up. It’s the perfect opportunity for them to spend time together without Tybalt catching wind of Romeo’s identity. Rosaline’s father, however, is determined to marry off his headstrong daughter to someone suitable, and she spends the day of the ball on a stormy (literally and metaphorically) boat ride with suitor Dario. To Dario’s credit, he’s a decently good sport about his date hating his guts and the soggy return to shore – qualities that endear him to Rosaline after her erstwhile boyfriend finds Juliet at the party and falls head over heels. What ensues is a spirited, irreverent look at the famous play through the most pivotal character, who never appears.
The cast is immediately winning. While the young cast portraying Romeo, Juliet, and Dario are all charming, Kaitlyn Dever appropriately steals the show, emerging from some heartrending work in dramas to prove equally adept as an effervescence rom-com heroine. She perfectly threads the needle between “period” sensibilities and modern sardonicism, and her acerbic wit catching knocks potential mates off their guard as fast as she wins over the audience. As Rosaline’s nurse (mirroring Juliet’s in the original play), Minni Driver is the other standout, her deadpan delivery anchoring the young lovers’ flights of fancy.
Whether or not Rosaline was ever aware of Romeo’s pining is open to interpretation in the original play; it’s strongly implied this was a crush from afar, and he crashes the Capulet’s masked ball for a chance to get close to her. Giving the two a backstory allows for a fresh, somewhat cynical reading of Shakespeare. The best Romeo and Juliet adaptations – Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Robert Wise’s West Side Story, and even James Gunn’s Tromeo and Juliet – understand that the play is not about teenage infatuation and impulsivity. Sure, Romeo and Juliet (and Rosaline, Tybalt, and Mercutio) are very young, and their choices can be questionable. But they live in a world of violence, their lives shaped by a feud they had no hand in making yet must continue. Their tragedy is not born from their love but from the impossibility of it in the world into which they are forced. Whether or not they would have stayed together long-term is not an important question; they never had the chance to find out.
Rosaline, unfortunately, seems too preoccupied with the lovers’ compatibility than it does with the social forces at play. It hampers the overall impact, especially in an egregious mid-credits scene that the film should not have included. Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (a take on The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s more problematic romantic comedies) is perhaps the template for updating Shakespeare for modern tastes and politics with wholehearted yet clear-eyed affection for its source material; without a base affection for its star-crossed lovers, Rosaline falls short.
Despite its shortcomings, Rosaline is a delightful romp – so delightful that annoyances about its surface-level understanding of Romeo and Juliet are forgotten during its 90 minutes. Dever’s breezy charm marks her as a triumphant leading lady, and one hopes she finds similar projects to utilize this talent as she – like Rosaline – takes the spotlight she deserves.
Rosaline is exclusively streaming on Hulu and on Disney+ outside of the United States.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie