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Before Romeo fell for Juliet, he lusted after her cousin, Rosaline. He exalted her beauty to his friends (“The all-seeing sun / ne’er saw her match since first the world begun”) and bemoaned her rejection (“She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow / Do I live dead that live to tell it now”). To hoist the lovelorn Montague heir out of the depths of his dramatic doting, Romeo’s cousins encourage him to sneak into a Capulet supper. There he meets Juliet, and so begins their epic romance.
There have been attempts to nudge Rosaline out of the margins, to flesh a person out of a ghostly image. In some adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedy, like Carlo Carlei’s Romeo & Juliet (2013), she gets more than a passing mention. In others, her presence is the point. Rosaline, which premieres on Hulu on Oct. 14, joins the handful of works (Sharman Macdonald’s play After Juliet, Shonda Rhimes’ ABC drama Still Star-Crossed) that redirect the spotlight, making Romeo’s first love the protagonist.
Directed by Karen Maine, Rosaline recasts the story of its eponymous character as a digestible coming-of-age narrative and injects her with the outspoken but diluted feminist spirit of modern Disney heroines. Rosaline, played here by Kaitlyn Dever, rejects the expectations for women of her time in Verona, where the film is set. She is forthright, stubborn and quick to butt heads with her father (Bradley Whitford), a man exasperated by the process of finding his daughter a suitor.
To her father’s confusion and disapproval, Rosaline insists on marrying for love. At the beginning of the briskly paced film, she, a Capulet, is secretly dating Romeo (Kyle Allen) of the Montagues. Their dalliance takes place under the moon’s watch, with Romeo risking exposure to Capulet guards to see Rosaline on her balcony. Mismatched personalities doom their relationship: Whereas Romeo is an impulsive romantic, Rosaline is a comparatively overthinking realist. When Romeo confesses his love, the young woman can’t return the sentiment.
But Rosaline — whether driven by genuine affection toward Romeo or an addiction to his attention — doesn’t want to lose him. She asks the embarrassed man to meet her at the Capulet masquerade ball, where they can make up and fix their now-awkward romance. On the evening of the party, however, Rosaline’s father arranges for her to meet another suitor, a dashing sailor by the name of Dario (Sean Teale). Rosaline is not interested, and her disdain for this equally sharp-tongued man only grows when she misses the ball.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the duo behind 500 Days of Summer) craft a nimble story, adapted from Rebecca Serle’s novel When You Were Mine. Serle’s novel imagines the inevitable love triangle between Romeo, Rosaline and Juliet (played in the film by Isabela Merced) as a petty and vengeful feud in contemporary Southern California. Neustadter and Weber bring the story back to the past — though they spare us any attempt to mimic Shakespearean style (the characters speak in contemporary English) — and take some of the edge off. Rosaline is jealous of Juliet, but her anger is softened by a burgeoning affection. She initially takes the younger cousin under her wing as a means of getting her to break up with Romeo, but the two develop a bond that leads Rosaline to feel guilty about her deceit. Their eventual friendship, telegraphed early on, causes the perfunctory backstabbing to drag.
Rosaline takes other liberties that add welcome levity and comic relief. Minor characters like a spacey courier (Nico Hiraga), Rosaline’s even-keeled nurse (Minnie Driver) and her best friend Paris (Spencer Stevenson) get rounded out, stealing the few scenes in which they’re featured. Anachronistic pop music choices set a convivial mood and underscore that Shakespeare’s tragic romance was really about horny and impetuous teens. (Ironically, the least interesting parts of Rosaline are Romeo and Juliet, whose relationship comes off as drab and uneventful.)
The film takes a more interesting turn when our “too fair, too wise” Rosaline transforms from jilted lover to architect of romance. It’s a dubious shift, but Dever makes watching it enjoyable. She balances Rosaline’s contradictory personality traits — the petulance and impatience mixed with surprising moments of moral clarity and maturity — and maintains a cohesive character even when the film wobbles.
Love is the major force rippling through Rosaline, one which our protagonist comes to understand over the course of the film. Her romance with Romeo is, ultimately, a boon instead of a loss. She turns to other people in her life — her father, her nurse, and even Dario (albeit quite reluctantly at first) — who help her embrace the true meaning of such a big feeling.
Production companies: 20th Century Studios, 21 Laps Production, Universal Pictures
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Isabela Merced, Sean Teale, Kyle Allen, Spencer Stevenson, Bradley Whitford, Christopher Mcdonald, Minnie Driver, Nico Hiraga
Director: Karen Maine
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Rebecca Serle (Based on the novel by)
Producers: Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Dan Levine, Kaitlyn Dever, Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Executive producers: Whitney Brown, Emily Morris, Becca Edelman
Director of photography: Laurie Rose BSC
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Music: Drum & Lace, Ian Hultquist
Casting director: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 36 minutes
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