Rosaline review – Kaitlyn Dever shines in comedic spin on Romeo & Juliet
Simply by invoking the name Juliet, Hulu’s Rosaline, a comic retelling of Shakespeare from the perspective of Juliet’s jilted cousin, is working in a crowded field. On the sliding scale of loose literary adaptations, Rosaline lands within the territory of the purely enjoyable modernizations – Clueless, She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You. In the realm of anachronistic period comedies, it’s working in a similar lane to Autumn de Wilde’s biting Emma, Lena Dunham’s delightfully profane Catherine Called Birdy or the ahistorical feminism of the Apple TV series Dickinson. It’s certainly better than this summer’s Persuasion, Netflix’s Fleabag-inspired Jane Austen spin which flattened the novel’s abundant wit into a slangy, fourth wall-smashing drag.
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All of which is to say: Rosaline, directed by Karen Maine from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber (the writing pair behind 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars), understands what makes a good adaptation: a sense of humor at least on par with if not exceeding the original, lighthearted lines with serious delivery, crackling romantic chemistry. And in the case of Rosaline, an unmissable lead in Kaitlyn Dever as a lovelorn medieval schemer left on read.
From her balcony, the sweeping tragedy of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers comes crashing back to earth. Medieval Verona is picturesque as ever, but its people are petty and small-minded. Messenger boys, especially ones played by stoner par excellence Nico Hiraga, are incompetent at their jobs. Most of the men are dolts, especially Romeo (Kyle Allen), a bumbling bachelor initially devoted to a secret romance with Dever’s quick-witted Rosaline, the niece of Montague archenemy Lord Capulet (Christopher McDonald).
Though not impressed by Romeo’s saccharine soliloquies (he slips back into normal speak, then almost off her balcony) nor inclined to say “I love you”, Rosaline does return the sentiment; after all, he is, to quote her underwritten gay best friend, Paris (Spencer Stevenson), “one tasty Montague”. And she is desperate to forge her own path, the expectations for a woman in medieval Italy, even a very rich one, being what they are. As in last month’s Catherine Called Birdy, Rosaline is an enjoyable riff on restriction – at once flouting the period’s gender structures and working with them (“You’re a woman, you’re not supposed to talk about what you want!” Rosaline’s father tells her, both seriously and with a wink, in an ongoing war of independence.)
Like Dunham’s Birdy, Rosaline bristles against the marriage plots of her father, played as a drawn-out sigh by Bradley Whitford. Both are very good at putting men off, much to their fathers’ chagrin and begrudging respect. When one such coerced date with dashing soldier Dario (Sean Teale) – not only the opposite of pathetic but the only one to match Rosaline’s barbs – runs late, Rosaline misses her family’s masquerade ball and, well, you know. Romeo stops returning her letters. Rosaline flounders to the tune of All By Myself, further humiliated by having to entertain her more urbane cousin Juliet (a luminous Isabela Merced) freshly returned from finishing school. Machinations to keep the new lovers apart – trying to school Juliet in the art of pub flirting, for instance – go briskly, entertainingly awry. (The film clocks in at a breezy 90 minutes.)
Rosaline offers the sensual pleasures now de rigueur for period pieces in the Bridgerton era – lusciously ornate set design (by Andrew McAlpine), colorblind casting, sumptuous costumes, symphony pop song covers (Robyn’s Dancing on My Own). Historical inspiration is spun into a Look (Rosaline’s braided updo paired with green eye shadow). A comic relief character provides a through-line to modern sensibilities, here in the form of Minnie Driver’s bemused, conspiratorial bedroom nurse.
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The film occasionally hits built-in ceilings – there’s a limited pleasure to modernized dialogue in period costume, plot contrivances that could tip too far into farce or a protagonist singularly focused on winning back her underwhelming ex. But it ultimately skirts them thanks to magnetic enough chemistry between Dever’s Rosaline and Teale’s Dario, the type of good-looking that merits an in-script joke about how distractingly hot he is. To their credit, the film-makers recognized their strongest resource; their flirtation anchors the movie’s second half, which brings them together to stave off the ill-advised union between the star-crossed lovers and reroute the story into something resembling a comedy.
On the comic front, the always solid Dever is particularly sharp. After several gutting performances of characters in dire straits – a disbelieved rape survivor in 2019’s Unbelievable, an opioid addict in Dopesick, the sister of a teen who dies by suicide in Dear Evan Hansen – it’s refreshing to see her return to the sharp timing and over-it eye rolls of her breakout role in Booksmart. Her Rosaline nearly vibrates with stubbornness, absorbing narcissism levied by her sincere self-belief and arch one-liners. Merced, too, stands out as a deceptively layered Juliet, misguided but up to the task of matching Rosaline’s spite.
All of which is a good time to watch. I can’t say Rosaline will enter the canon of previous Shakespeare modernizations turned classics unto themselves, but it does have what so many love stories past and present lack: a hearty, swift dose of fun.
Rosaline is available on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK on 14 October