Rosaline is now streaming on Hulu.
Intentionally anachronistic approaches to period pieces are having a bit of a moment in 2022, what with Persuasion, Catherine, Called Birdyand The Princess. Often cringy in the wrong hands, success very much hinges on how well the lead pulls it off and if the overall tone of the piece has a point of view that firmly embraces the tongue-in-cheek. Rosaline definitely checks those boxes with the incredibly versatile Kaitlyn Dever proving there’s no genre she can’t conquer with her prodigious talents di lei. As Rosaline, she makes it look effortless to honor and satirize both Shakespeare and rom-com genre tropes.
Based on the concept of Rebecca Serle’s YA book “When You Were Mine,” which remixed Romeo & Juliet with contemporary teens in California, Rosaline actually turns back the clock to go full period piece in the 16th century. Set in Verona, Italy, the title character is the sole daughter of a busy, wealthy merchant (Bradley Whitford) and, as such, is mostly mothered by her acerbic but loving nurse di lei, Janet (Minnie Driver). Rosaline Capulet’s tale opens with her passionately dating Romeo Montague (Kyle Allen) on the sly. But when he professes his undying love di lei, she balks at returning the sentiment. His heartbreak di lei opens the door to him meeting her cousin di lei Juliet (Isabela Merced), which ignites the romance that drives Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
Much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead does with Hamlet, Rosaline weaves in and out of the main story of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as we watch the jilted teen scheme and pursue trying to win Romeo back. Dever’s Rosaline embarks on that chase mostly because 1) she’s appalled at being dumped and 2) lei isn’t really sure what actual love feels like since she hasn’t been the recipient of much of it in her own life. Coddled and tolerated by her father di lei who values her as a commodity to marry off for money and alliances, Rosaline is confronted at being treated like a broodmare when she really wants to travel and be a cartographer.
When she’s introduced to potential suitor Dario (Sean Teale), she wholesale rejects him but their truthful candor spurs her to fill him in on her real “romance” with Romeo. He’s sort charmed by her directness and spite di lei, so he helps her get closer to her goal di lei. She also enlists the help of her gay BFF Paris (Spencer Stevenson) and local himbo, Steve the Courier (Nico Hiraga), to execute her machinations that focus on gaining the confidence of Juliet in order to sabotage the budding relationship. But then she ends up really liking Juliet and cooling on Romeo’s old-fashioned worldview which makes everything even more complicated.
If you’re thinking some major plot points sound reminiscent of Catherine, Called Birdy, you’d be right as both films share similar primary characters – clueless girl dads, doting nurses, gay besties – as well as the way the young women of their times are commodities at the mercy of their family’s fiduciary needs. However, Rosaline plays to a much older crowd with Dever channeling strong vibes akin to Julia Roberts’ Julianne in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Both women are cut from the same semi-catty cloth, exhibiting outsized cunning, selfishness, and being a bit emotionally stunted. Yet you root for them with Dever’s Rosaline coming out the softer of the two because of her evolution of self-awareness of hers.
Director Karen Maine has also made the handsomer film, shot with gorgeous locations in beautifully appointed villas that underscore the sunnier take on what is usually one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. And the rich visuals are bolstered by the frothy score co-composed by Ian Hultquist and Drum & Lace. Dever also sparkles throughout, both on her own di lei and when she’s given great scene partners in Teale’s more suited suitor, Dario, and Merced’s kinder but equally clever Juliet. Plus, Dever gets to show off her comedic chops di lei as her character di lei becomes more and more flabbergasted by the ridiculous plans of Romeo and Juliet’s dramatic grand romantic gestures. She is a genius when it comes to landing some zinger lines and reaction shots.
The film does miss out on exploring the potentially interesting story path of why Rosaline is unused to identifying real affection and learning how to accept it. We get tastes of where it might have gone in small conversations with her nurse and her father di lei, but it feels like a storyline that was sacrificed in exchange for a brisker ultimate run time. Seeing what Dever could have done with that would have been worthwhile and might have given the movie a little more emotional weight than it lands in the end. However, Rosaline is a very entertaining watch that shines up both a literary classic and the rom-com genre with a fresh voice.