Rosaline, which is told from the perspective of Romeo’s ex-girlfriend, is a silly, boisterous romp from start to finish. If you demand accuracy in your Shakespearean pieces—or you decry modern language where it shouldn’t be—you should probably skip it. That’s also true if you don’t like women asserting their autonomy, but then there is just so much you should be busy atoning for. It does, however, lack enough Minnie Driver, but doesn’t so much? And I was torn about whether I wanted a more radical second half, but I think I’ve found peace with it.
Rosaline Capulet (Kaitlyn Dever) has a secret thing going on with Romeo Montague (Kyle Allen). He climbs up her balcony at night and tells her things like, “To gaze upon you is like drinking from the purest fountain. The fairest stars in heaven do entreat your eyes. Forswear it, sight, I never saw true beauty until this night.” When she asks why he’s talking like that, he responds, “Oh, um— I— I— I felt like it sounded romantic.” Obviously, they keep it very hush, hush because their families have that whole long-term feud going on. If all this sounds wildly familiar it’s because Rosaline and Romeo were a thing before Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it turns out that Romeo ghosts Rosaline for Juliet—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When her nurse (Minnie Driver) scolds her for not being more careful in covering up evidence of her late night trysts, Rosaline responds, “If I could date who I wanted to date and read what I wanted to read there wouldn’t be so much sneaking around in the first place. Would there, nurse? It’s so unfair.” Methinks she’s talking about more than just Romeo. Her nurse responds that she went to nursing school for seven years and now she does this for a living, “So yeah. Life is unfair.” My main point here is that if you like your rom-coms to humorously and bluntly point out sexism, this movie will be up your alley.
So, Rosaline is super into Romeo and she doesn’t think it’s just because it’s a secret romance, like her friend Paris (Spencer Stevenson) suggests. But, truth be told, she only half listens to him when he’s yammering on about that because she’s so busy thinking about the note that Romeo just secretly passed her. (In addition to being very snarky, Rosaline is self-centered, which feels pretty realistic and relatable.) Then, one night when they’re dreaming about being together for real, Romeo mentions how he could write poetry all day and she could take care of the house and kids, which pulls Rosaline up short. As it should! So much so that, when he says “I love you,” instead of ardently affirming her love for him, she hesitates and then hesitates some more. Uh oh! To make up for it, she invites him to the Capulet masquerade ball where no one will be able to recognize him because he’ll have a teeny, tiny mask across his eyes.
Meanwhile, Rosaline’s father (Bradley Whitford) is trying to marry her off to any eligible bachelor because she’s basically a crone and taking up valuable space in his giant-ass house. (Her father is actually a pretty funny and sympathetic character, but I’m not letting him off the hook for this.) Rosaline, who wants to be a cartographer and travel the world, is very skilled at convincing her suitors that they don’t want to marry her. Or she is until she meets Dario (Sean Teale), who doesn’t seem to care that she’s sullen and sharp-tongued. She doesn’t seem to care that he’s funny and smart and has a very Genetically Blessed Face, though I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to notice that last bit. They hate each other in that way that can only spell eventual L-O-V-E in a movie like this one. For example, on their first date he tells her that his type is “not a shrew” to which she poetically responds, “Blow me.” Ah, young love. (And, no, I’m not at all thrilled about him calling her a shrew, but I’m going to let it partially slide on time period grounds.) Honestly, this second romance is probably not needed, but I’m going to let it slide because I like a good romance, they are well-matched, have good chemistry…and also his face.
While Rosaline and Dario are out having zero fun together on his boat, Romeo is at the ball bumping into Rosaline’s cousin Juliet (Isabela Merced), who is recently back from finishing school. The two of them have an immediate spark and Romeo forgets all about Rosaline. Like, literally. He doesn’t contact her again and doesn’t respond to any of the many, many letters she sends through Steve, the stoner courier. I mean, Romeo is a bit of a tool and a dim bulb, in my humble opinion. Paris is dead right that his appeal is mostly in sneaking around. We’ve all been there. Or can imagine being there.
Rosaline falls into a deep funk that not even her delightfully cynical nurse can pull her out of. And then shit gets even worse because Rosaline spies old Romeo wooing Juliet with the EXACT SAME LINES OF POETRY he used on her, and she is pissed and hurt. So, Rosaline does what any young, seemingly independent woman who is a product of a patriarchal society would do: She befriends Juliet with the sole goal of getting her to ditch Romeo. She tells her that he’s a cad who is reusing lines of poetry on her. She convinces her to go out and play the field. And then, of course, she starts to actually like Juliet and feel a bit bad about her ruse. Yes, normally I am very much opposed to plots that pit two women against each other over a man’s affections. However, in this case, while she is jealous, Rosaline doesn’t try to harm or denigrate Juliet. In fact, you could argue that trying to keep her apart from Romeo, who is really not that great a catch, is doing them both a favor. Plus, their friendship gradually blossoming is quite lovely to watch. Is it unrealistic that Rosaline doesn’t have any time or patience for other men’s antics, but moons over Romeo? Not really.
I mean, clearly the point of this movie is not jump scares and zany twists, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise when I tell you that, between having a handle on the basic rom-com framework and the plot of Romeo and Juliet, you pretty much know where things are going from here. The fun is watching them get there. Or, better put, the fun is watching Kaitlyn Devers get there, because this is one hundred percent her movie and she absolutely nails it. Her facial expressions and delivery of lines like, “You all have really big swords. Now put them back in your pants,” are absolutely delightful. It is great fun to watch her stomp around in richly designed period dresses while scorning everything. I’ve heard other people say that she’s unlikable because she’s so derisive, but I didn’t find it problematic. However, snark is my first and preferred language, so take what I say with all the necessary grains of salt.
I will say that at first I did feel like they should have opted for a more radical retelling of the ending of Romeo and Juliet, but I think the subtle shifts they made send a pretty strong message. Still, at the same time, they could have done better for Juliet, which is, in some ways, making a stronger point than more revolutionary edits.