At first glance, gossip, betrayal, and seduction seem like enticing cinematic material. But Karen Maine’s “Rosaline” proves that a juicy plot cannot save a film that lacks bold artistic vision. Based on a young adult novel by Rebecca Serle called “When You Were Mine” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Rosaline” fails to capture the vivacity of young love it set out to portray.
The film follows Rosaline, the cousin of Juliet, adjacent to the traditional Shakespearean “Romeo and Juliet” plot. She drives Juliet’s well-known storyline from the outskirts with her own love story. Rebellious and unimpressed by the patriarchy’s expectations, Rosaline bemoans arranged marriage, like many young adult heroines, instead prioritizing a love match. After losing her initial suitor, Romeo, to her cousin, Rosaline finds herself drawn to Dario, whom she initially disliked. Embracing a typical enemies-to-lovers plotline, “Rosaline” had loads of exciting potential as a story.
Despite an admirable performance by Kaitlyn Dever as Rosaline, the film’s cast mainly appears as a two-dimensional ensemble. With a brooding performance as Dario, Sean Teale manages to pull off the role of the film’s heartthrob. Kyle Allen plays a foolish Romeo, though his performance is relatively unmemorable, and Paris’s (Spencer Rayshon Stevenson) character is never developed beyond his sexuality. Isabela Merced as Juliet tries to subvert the stereotypical naivete of romantic heroines with a fierce, almost girlboss-ified energy, but her performance seems completely contrived and unbelievable.
The unaffecting performances result from their characters’ simplicity and lack of integrated complexity within the story. The problem of believability transcends performance. The characters’ colloquial speech attempts to cater to the film’s modern audience, rather than the story’s needs. Thus, the jokes fall flat and the characters seem to be speaking as only their ordained stereotype. These living tropes fail to integrate tonally with one another, creating a clear phoniness. Through the language and delivery, the filmmakers seem to beg Gen Z to watch “Rosaline,” though they underestimate how quickly catering to a certain style of humor starts to feel insincere if not entirely understood.
The film’s cinematography is woefully uninspired. In an attempt to make the setting appear soft and whimsical, the lighting sapps the onscreen characters of life force, most noticeably in scenes filmed outdoors. Especially in a film centered around two feuding aristocratic families, the lighting could have provided a tactful way to display the richness and depth of their wealth and the conflict itself through strong shadows and glittering highlights. Instead, the filmmakers rely on diffused light, creating softness in all of the wrong places.
The production design of Rosaline lacks any animating factor. Rosaline’s world seems devoid of any particular aesthetic interest, even as she begins to fall in love with Dario. The setting lacks distinctive features, leaving the frames vacant and peculiarly simple. The setting is stripped of unseemly parts, making the landscape appear barren and overly polished. The romantic comedy genre likely informed this decision to reduce the setting’s potentially darker subject matter and focus on the lighter and more superficial rendition of a classic drama.
The film caters towards the same historical romance niche as “Bridgerton,” especially with its relatively diverse cast and modern music, but without the same energy or boldness. Yet, these decisions seem haphazard, rather than intentional. The main characters are still mostly white or white-passing and the filmmakers mushed the music on top of an already messy film. The choice to modernize certain elements to draw in a larger viewership while keeping many aesthetic parts archaic was not handled skillfully, nor committed to carefully. In sum, “Rosaline” plays it safe — at its own expense.