Hulu’s ‘Rosaline’ is a witty, predictable parody of ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Romeo and Juliet (1597) remains to this day one of William Shakespeare's most well-known plays. Director Karen Maine's Rosaline, released on Hulu on October 14, 2022, offers new insight into the beloved tragedy by reimagining it as a romantic comedy.
The movie tells the classic love story from the perspective of Juliet's cousin Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever), who happens to be Romeo's recent ex-girlfriend. Crushed when Romeo (Kyle Allen) meets Juliet (Isabela Merced) and begins to pursue her, Rosaline schemes to foil the famous romance and reclaim her man.
In the early years of the Renaissance, Italy was divided into several smaller city-states which often warred with one another. Rome was mostly in ruins—but Padua and Verona came under Venetian control, and cities like Florence and Milan flourished under early financial innovations spearheaded by the Medici clan of bankers and politicians. In the cities, politically powerful wealthy elites became patrons of the arts and a luxury class emerged quickly—but social inequality throughout the majority of the country was profound, and most of Italy belonged to the peasant class.
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but the play knowingly wags its finger at the warring Capulets and Montagues, wealthy families who can't look past their own insularity and haughty self-importance to be good to one another, or to allow their children the chance at real love. Shakespeare drew on many poems, novels, and myths in the construction of Romeo and Juliet, but it also may very well have been a critique of Renaissance-era social inequality and the trivial concerns of the upwardly mobile elite.
In the world of Romeo and Juliet, love is connected through word and action with violence, and Romeo and Juliet's deepest mutual expression of love occurs through their suicides. By connecting love with pain and ultimately with death, Shakespeare suggests that there is an inherent sense of violence in many of the physical and emotional facets of expressing love.
In addition to being based on Shakespeare's original tale, Rosaline is also inspired by Rebecca Serle's 2012 novel When You Were Mine, which updates Romeo and Juliet to modern times in Southern California—with the inclusion of Rosaline as a main character. This leads to plenty of intentionally anachronistic choices, such as having Paris (Spencer Stevenson) talk about how Romeo is a "tasty Montague," or including a cover of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own".
Incorporating modernity into a known piece of classic literature is not new territory at this point, but Rosaline has some amusing takes on the enduring love story. The movie takes the plot back to the past in Verona, with characters in period clothing. However, it throws out most of the Shakespearean language in hopes of reminding us that Romeo and Juliet at its heart is more accessible and hip than its old-fashioned text.
The movie's take on love is far more light-hearted than that of the original tale. Romeo love bombs his way into Rosaline's affections, mostly by speaking in verse. He is a foolish and an impulsive romantic with a poor emotional attention span. Rosaline, comparatively, is an overthinking realist. She is especially entertaining when she playfully calls out the patriarchy of the Renaissance era—a time when she'd be nearly too old to marry and is looked down upon for speaking at the table or aspiring to be a cartographer. "While you are off writing verse, I am off changing diapers?" she asks Romeo, establishing her strong character.
Yet, when Romeo starts pursuing Juliet, Rosaline spends most of her time trying to get him back, which involves sabotaging her sweet and trusting cousin and brushing off the advances of Dario (Sean Teale), a well-mannered soldier and potential suitor. In this light, the movie offers a fresh take, as Rosaline is the kind of underdog character we are curious to see move from the background to centre stage from the start.
While Rosaline starts out wanting to marry for love and be an independent woman in an era where such a thing was unheard of, the chemistry between her and Dario provides each of the two headstrong characters an equal opponent to face off with. The movie is surprisingly non-committal about whether their relationship is going to be forever or just for right now, which feels appropriate for them both. While Rosaline appreciates Romeo and Juliet's romance, she comments on the plot holes, the bizarre timing of events, and of course, the careless plan the star-crossed lovers come up with. That is what makes Rosaline work, though. It takes the premise of the famous play, and holds it up as the lofty idea that it is. Stripped of their romantic grandeur, Romeo and Juliet are kids who barely know each other and enact a convoluted, dangerous plan to be together. The movie is for anyone who loves to make fun of Romeo and Juliet just as much as they also love a love story.
It simultaneously points out the ridiculousness of Romeo and Juliet's situation, while not discrediting love as a concept.
Fascinatingly, the film is the most enjoyable when Rosaline and Juliet team up, like when they pick up local men at a pub. It is, thus, frustrating to watch the two main female characters pitted against each other in a fight for a man who really is not worth the effort. This story element is at odds with the empowering tone the filmmakers were clearly aiming for.
Nevertheless, the movie successfully demonstrates that although Rosaline initially takes her cousin under her wing as a means of getting her to break up with Romeo, the two develop a bond that leads Rosaline to feel guilty about her deceit. To be honest, I was more invested in the burgeoning friendship between the girls than I was in either of their romantic relationships. Most of the plot is also quite predictable, and the movie's hit-or-miss tone offers a way heavier dose of parody than heart.
Nitpicks and disappointments aside, Rosaline ultimately makes a case for telling the lost stories of characters that never got their due. A witty reimagining, it offers an entertaining riff on Shakespeare for both current teens and those who were that age in the 1990s.
Shababa Iqbal is a Journalism graduate from Independent University, Bangladesh, who likes Jane Austen's novels and Disney movies. Email: [email protected].