The story of Romeo and Juliet may be a tale as old as time, usually blown out as one of the great love and loss stories, glossing over the fact that these star-crossed lovers from warring families were still children when they met, got together, and ultimately died by poison because they feared they could never be together. But what if, even in their short years, they were not each other's first loves? And what if their end doesn't have to be so permanent? Those are the main questions posed in Rosaline, a new film based on Rebecca Serle's When You Were Mine novel.
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and directed by Karen Maine, Rosaline, which is streaming now on Hulu, follows the titular Capulet (played by Kaitlin Dever), who happens to be a slightly older cousin of Juliet (played by Isabela Merced), and who is in love and a relationship with the infamous Romeo Montague (Kyle Allen).
The character is mentioned in the original text by William Shakespeare, but as Dever notes, she only has a "very, very, very small role" in that story. Similar to how The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power takes characters and events mentioned in passing or footnotes of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels and blows them out for the prequel series, Rosaline, too, expands a previously-overlooked-character to give her a rich life and center her in a new narrative.
"I think I was just almost a heightened version of myself and sometimes a bit just outrageous and really passionate and determined," Dever says of creating the character. "I think playing with the comedy was the most exciting part about playing her, and how sarcastic she is. I love that she's a person who's really ahead of her time. ... I just appreciated and admired her determination and her fearlessness and her drive."
The fact that the Capulets and Montagues do not get along does not bother Rosaline the way you make remember it being an issue in Shakespeare's work, as she takes a certain pleasure in sneaking notes and glances as they "run into each other" in town. But when she misses an event, and Romeo ends up meeting Juliet there, things take a turn because suddenly he is smitten with the younger teenager and saying all the same things to her that he once said to Rosaline.
"Romeo would fall in love with a stick if you'd let him. He's completely obsessed with the concept and the idea of love," Allen admits. "That's pretty much the entirety of his personality; he doesn't have much else going on."
Rosaline is less of a woman scorned, wanting revenge, as a girl with blinders still on, hoping if she keeps Juliet out of the picture, he'll come back to her, though. And thus, she takes Juliet out on the town, hoping she will meet someone else. Eventually she even comes up with a plan for Juliet to marry her friend Paris (Spencer Stevenson). Nothing goes the way she wants it, too, though, and eventually she concocts a much bigger and more important plan (to have Romeo and Juliet fake their deaths so they can literally sail away together) as she learns her own big, important lesson (that Romeo is not all that and she should be paying closer attention to Sean Teale's Dario).
"Rosaline is a lot sometimes. And that's what's so much fun about her in playing her," Dever says.
The film is set in the classic Renaissance period, but it is full of modern language, music, and sensibilities, including the fact that Romeo and Juliet may not make it this time either — but this time it will be because they are two impulsive kids who don't have a whole lot to say to each other, and they will likely discover they don't have a whole lot in common between initial stars in their eyes.
The silence they fall into at sea is less of a peaceful, content one, and more of a, "Oh, did we maybe make a huge mistake?" one. On the other hand, Rosaline gets a bit more of a potential positive outcome when, after almost two hours of bantering and bickering with Dario, she realizes he "really understands" her.
But another modern touch is the self-awareness the film has regarding its female characters, especially the nurse (played by Minnie Driver), whose name is actually Janet but the men around her don't know that, assuming "Nurse" is her name. This is why they also don't know if they can believe her when she declares Romeo and Juliet to be dead. (Well, OK, on that one they were correct because she was doing the kids a favor by lying, but they stumbled into that by way of their own sexism.)
"I love all of the vague resentment and sadness of this lost life that you know nothing about. This film has nothing to do with Janet's other life, but I like that you feel it there. And I love how much she loves her girl and how she wants the best for her girl," Driver says. "And that she helps the young people at the end by saying that they're dead when they're not. That's also very funny."
Driver also notes that usually in drama school no one wants to get stuck playing the nurse because she's a small, "boring, old" character (in the original text, she is Juliet's nurse, not Rosaline's), but with the way things are trending these days, you never know; she could be the next one to get her story told.