The Royal Hotel
Australian filmmaker Kitty Green reteams with Julia Garner after 'The Assistant' for another excellent thriller with real-life parallels, this time set in an Aussie outback pub.
November 21, 2023
Anyone who has spent time in an outback Australian pub will recognise The Royal Hotel's namesake watering hole, even if they've never seen this particular bar before. The filming location itself doesn't matter. Neither do the IRL details of the actual establishment that stands in for the movie's fictional boozer. What scorches itself into memory like the blistering sun beating down on the middle-of-nowhere saloon's surroundings, then, is the look and the feel of this quintessentially Aussie beer haven. From the dim lighting inside and weather-beaten facade outside to the almost exclusively male swarm of barflies that can't wait to getting sipping come quittin' time, this feature's setting could be any tavern. It could be all of them. That fact is meant to linger as filmmaker Kitty Green crafts another masterclass in tension, microagressions and the ever-looming threats that women live with daily — swapping The Assistant's Hollywood backdrop and Harvey Weinstein shadow for a remote mining town and toxic testosterone-fuelled treatment of female bartenders.
Making her second fictional feature after that 2019 standout, and her fourth film overall thanks to 2013 documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and 2017's Casting JonBenet before that, Green has kept as much as she's substituted between her two most recent movies. Julia Garner stars in both, albeit without breaking out an Inventing Anna-style drawl in either — although comically parroting the Aussie accent does earn a brief workout. Green's focus remains living while female. Her preferred tone is still as unsettling as any scary movie. The Royal Hotel is another of her horror films, but an inescapable villain here, as it was in The Assistant, is a world that makes existing as a woman this innately unnerving. This taut and deeply intelligent picture's sources of anxiety and danger aren't simply society; however, what it means to weather the constant possibility of peril for nothing more than your sex chromosomes is this flick's far-as-the-eye-can-see burnt earth.
Backpacking Down Under by partying their way through Sydney, Hanna (Garner, Ozark) and Liv (Jessica Henwick, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) swap boat shindigs on the harbour for a rust-hued expanse for one reason: money. With their cash drying up, the only option available to make more is a gig where the local pool is equally dusty. "Will there be kangaroos?" is their main initial question. If this pair have seen Wake in Fright, it hasn't left an imprint. They'll soon be living in their own version. Dirt, dirt and more dirt greets them fresh off the bus, then no-nonsense pub cook Carol (Ursula Yovich, Irreverent) and gruff drunk owner Billy (Hugo Weaving, Love Me), then a trial-by-fire night behind the taps to send off English tourists Jules (Alex Malone, Colin From Accounts) and Cassie (Kate Cheel, The Commons), who they're replacing.
The Royal Hotel as the picture's prime locale might double for every typically Aussie watering hole, but both the setting and The Royal Hotel as a film take their cues from one specific pub. Western Australia's Denver City Hotel was immortalised in Hotel Coolgardie, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about two Finnish women who worked behind its bar and experienced the very worst of Australian drinking culture — and seeing that movie inspired writer/director Green to dive into this aggressively misogynistic world. "Fresh meat" adorns the boozer's chalkboard after Hanna and Liv arrive. Billy has barely spoken multiple sentences to them before he's dropping "cunt" with belittling force. Sexist jokes from the sozzled and arrogant customers rain down among eerie stares, brazen pick-up attempts, predatory demands and arguments between blokes over which woman they're claiming as theirs, like The Royal Hotel's latest faces have no say in it. To most of the pub's patrons, they don't.
The comments, jibes and advances come from a cross-section of culprits, with Green and co-writer Oscar Redding (Van Diemen's Land) purposeful in showing that there's not only one kind of stereotypical guy whipping up discomfit. Toby Wallace's (Babyteeth) Matty knows how to charm, and how to rile up the male crowd by making women the butt of the gag. While James Frecheville (The Dry) plays the quieter, protective Teeth, those traits don't buff away his edges. With Daniel Henshall's (Mystery Road: Origin) Dolly, menace doesn't need words — and sinister entitlement drips from almost everything that he says or, to be precise, orders. There isn't just one way that women can be made to feel uneasy in male-heavy environments where they're expected to be at every guy's beck and call, and in general, as The Royal Hotel meticulously demonstrates. There definitely isn't a lone version of this gut-wrenching nightmare, nor a single way of coping when every waking minute is an exercise in monitoring your behaviour to get a job done, and just exist, without attracting the wrong attention.
It's there in Hanna and Liv's varying reactions to the pub's clientele and their manners, or lack thereof; the difference between Hanna's distress and Jules and Cassie's carefree approach; and the range of factors that get Matty, Teeth, Dolly, Billy and company inciting alarm: the array of ways that Green's exceptional cast pack The Royal Hotel's powderkeg, that is. Only two things spark a straightforward read in Green's feature. The first is the eponymous everypub where nothing regal has ever graced its peeling walls and sticky floors. The second is the dread that pours out faster than visiting bartenders can pull pints. Actually, there's a third, because Kylie Minogue bopping through the soundtrack is a glorious choice. The uncertainty of this jittery environment otherwise — that someone can seem like a friend in one light and a sleaze in another, or a perturbed reaction can feel wholly justified by one of the bar's visiting women and overkill to another, for instance — only heightens the film's agitated mood. There's no one better at conveying this storm than Green, or at ripping it from reality and into her films. To watch Hanna especially is to achingly apprehend when and how often you've stood in her shoes.
Green should keep Garner standing before her lens in as many movies as possible. With The Assistant and now The Royal Hotel, they're a dream team. Garner's flawless knack for conveying how life in Green's chosen scenarios is an incessant navigation and negotiation is as finely tuned as the director's; it's what made her so outstanding at playing Anna Delvey as well. As Green's now four-time cinematographer Michael Latham roves over blazing landscapes and gets claustrophobic in the tavern's dank indoors, and as composer Jed Palmer (back from Ukraine Is Not a Brothel) sets his score to faintly but still formidably jarring, that sense of steering your way through fraught terrain while trying to secure your survival proves as familiar as the outback venue at the centre of it all. With episodes of TV series Servant on her resume, Green can embrace horror traditionally, but the terrors that she digs into on the big screen aren't just frightening tales — they're piercing reflections of too much that's easy to recognise.
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