Film Review – Rosaline
Rosaline (2022) delivers a new twist to the Romeo & Juliet story – well, kind of. Instead of focusing on the doomed relationship of our famous lovers, this version takes a background character and brings them to the forefront. For those that may not remember: in William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Rosaline Capulet was the person Romeo was madly in love with before his encounter with Juliet. She’s such an afterthought that she is only mentioned; she doesn’t have any lines or even appears in the story. This film begs the question: “What happened with Rosaline? What was her relationship with Romeo? How did Romeo go from being head over heels in love with her to suddenly falling for Juliet?”
The naivete of youth, strong emotions mixed with spontaneous, knee-jerk reactions – this is not far off from a John Hughes coming of age tale, isn’t it? My guess is director Karen Maine and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber were going for precisely that intention. Adapting Rebecca Serle’s novel, “When You Were Mine,” the film is set long ago in Verona, Italy, but the rhythms, language, and tones are modern. Sure, characters may dress in period clothing, but their conversations could take place today. Gone is Shakespeare’s dialogue, replaced by slang terms like “My Bad.” The soundtrack is stuffed with bouncy pop songs, working in contrast to the time. In fact, if you were to take this and set it within the confines of a high school lunchroom or college campus, the result would be similar.
This isn’t exactly a new idea. We’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare plays done with a modern twist, from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) to Romeo + Juliet (1996). Films like The Princess Bride (1987) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) aimed to subvert classical fables by adding details from the present. So in that regard, Rosaline isn’t re-inventing the wheel. However, there is such a fun atmosphere that I couldn’t help being won over. There is energy and enthusiasm brimming in each scene. All the performers commit to the bit, which help smooth over how farcical this all is. Yes, a lot of what we see is silly. The main love story follows the rom-com blueprint nearly beat for beat. But at least it embraces its tropes. Seeing a cast and crew having fun can go a long way.
Front and center is Kaitlyn Dever, playing the title role. Dever’s casting might appear in contrast to Rosaline, which is exactly why it is perfect. Dever can exude the dry, jaded comedic flair that makes the character stand out from others. She’s an independent spirit, utilizing her quick wit as a defense mechanism. But when she is called to express longing and deep feelings of love, she does so with believability. That is why she can scoff when her father (Bradley Whitford) tries to find her a suitor to marry, but can collapse on her bed in distress when she discovers that Romeo (Kyle Allen) has left her for someone else. The narrative highlights Dever’s ability to bring out the most of an awkward situation, such as when Rosaline’s dear cousin – none other than Juliet (Isabela Merced) – pays her a visit.
For those that are wondering how much of the actual Romeo and Juliet story takes place, the answer is: not much. Their relationship is seen from the periphery, usually from Rosaline spying on them. A large chunk of the runtime has her scheming to break the two apart, whether that means giving Juliet bad advice or enlisting the help of her friend Paris (Spencer Stevenson) as an accomplice. This is all taken straight out of the rom-com textbook – basically a reworking of My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). Of course, this wouldn’t be complete without the introduction of hunky love interest Dario (Sean Teale). Initially, Rosaline and Dario cannot stand being around one another. Any guesses on where their story goes?
There is an artificiality in the set design and art direction – and I mean that as a good thing. The rolling hills, large estates, castles, gardens, furniture, and tapestries are pleasing to the eye, but they are inhabited by characters that act like they don’t belong. This is the most elaborate costume party, and everyone is participating. Even when we get deadly stand offs between the Montagues and Capulets, everything is exaggerated in a way that doesn’t convey real tension. It’s good that the performances are so strong because the story itself is predictable. We know where everyone is heading before they realize it. It’s just a matter of how much entertainment we get before they get there.
I’m not saying that Rosaline is great, but it has enough to offer that I could see it giving birth to a small but dedicated fanbase. It re-imagines the Romeo and Juliet world and does so with humor and charm. This is a light and fluffy affair, but at least it’s a good one.