Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play, Romeo and Juliet has been adapted for film innumerable times, from direct adaptations of the work to those inspired by it such as West Side Story, Romeo Must Die, and Warm Bodies. One of the more successful versions was Shakespeare in Love, which told the fictional story of the play being written while Shakespeare himself was experiencing a star-crossed love affair.
The new Hulu film Rosaline has a similar tone to that comedic drama, lovingly poking fun at the 400-year-old play while still mostly adhering to its plot. In this case, the story – taking place in the traditional timeline – is told from the perspective of Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever), a woman referred to but never seen in the play on whom Romeo has an unrequited crush. Here, Rosaline and Romeo (Kyle Allen) are seen in the midst of a secret relationship.
Rosaline’s father, Adrian (Bradley Whitford), is looking to set up an arranged marriage for her with Dario (Sean Teale). Their initial meeting keeps Rosaline from a planned rendezvous with Romeo at a masquerade party, and Romeo instead meets and immediately falls for Juliet (Isabela Merced), Rosaline’s younger cousin. Determined to get him back, Rosaline does everything in her power to keep the two of them apart.
Directed by Karen Maine (Yes, God, Yes, Obvious Child) and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from Rebecca Serle’s book When You Were Mine, the film is a hilarious delight from beginning to end, using the well-known story for a series of jokes that almost always land. The film starts off with Romeo speaking in the typical Shakespearean language, but quickly shifts to “normal” speech after Rosaline questions why Romeo is speaking that way.
Similar examinations of questionable decision-making stemming from Shakespeare’s story dot the landscape as the film parallels that plot. Rosaline is portrayed as someone who is stubbornly out-of-step with how a young woman should act in her day and age, and her butting up against the expectations of her elders and others around her provides much of the charm of the film.
It’s this mixture of the conventional and the modern that keeps the film moving. Everyone dresses as you would in a normal Shakespeare adaptation, but acts and speaks in a fun hybrid manner. The filmmakers throw in occasional pop music to keep things light, sometimes having that music interact with the story in clever ways.
They also have fun changing a variety of other characters to fit the jovial mood. The nurse (Minnie Driver), a minor character in the play, is expanded a bit. She now serves Rosaline instead of Juliet, showing her dedication and exasperation in a variety of ways. Count Paris (Spencer Stevenson) is now Rosaline’s gay best friend, a role that threatens to be a stereotype until the character gets a few choice lines in the second half of the film.
Dever, who’s been on a roll in both TV and movies in recent years, plays Rosaline almost perfectly. Even when the character is behaving badly, her performance keeps her likable. Teale, an under-the radar actor, makes for an appealing alternate romantic lead and could use this to expand his career. Romeo and Juliet are made into kind of goofy and naïve characters, respectively, and Allen (who looks like a young Heath Ledger) and Merced do a great job in exuding those qualities.
The world of Shakespeare can often be impenetrable for the uninitiated, and films like Rosaline are an effective way to keep the stories alive while still appealing to a younger audience. No matter whether you know Romeo and Juliet by heart or have only a passing knowledge of the text, the film makes for a highly enjoyable viewing experience.
Rosaline is now streaming exclusively on Hulu.