THE STORY – Hanna and Liv are backpacking across Australia when they run out of money and are forced to take jobs at The Royal Hotel, a bar in the outback. They’re immediately confronted by the sea of rowdy men who fill the bar on a daily basis.
THE CAST – Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Hugo Weaving, Bree Bain & Toby Wallace
THE TEAM – Kitty Green (Director/Writer) & Oscar Redding
THE RUNNING TIME – 91 Minutes
With her debut feature, “The Assistant,” writer-director Kitty Green came out of the gate with ferocity, creating what would be defined as the #MeToo movie. Her critique of workplace harassment is claustrophobic and full of unsettling tension. This time, Green paints on a bigger canvas; “The Royal Hotel,” much like her previous work, is suffocating, controlled, and anxiety-inducing. A combination of a road movie and a thriller, “The Royal Hotel” has Green reuniting with Julia Garner as the filmmaker continues to masterfully create a tension-filled dissection of male and female power dynamics — but, this time, in the dusty, desolate Australian outback.
Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are searching for an escape. Opening with kinetic energy via its party boat setting, “The Royal Hotel” introduces two best friends living their best lives on vacation, trying to forget whatever troubles await them back home. But, of course, this can’t last forever. Liv’s card gets declined, and they leave the dark, neon-flushed dance floor to the blinding reality that they’re broke. Now, on the job hunt, they find work at a bar in a remote, male-dominated mining town. Liv doesn’t seem worried about this fact, while Hanna is apprehensive. “See, it’s not too bad,” Liv says in comfort as they look out the window at the beautiful landscape surrounding them. A lack of score emphasizes the stranded feeling of being far from civilization, and this vulnerability only grows when the two women are looked at as fresh meat.
The so-called “Royal Hotel” is far from welcoming. It’s falling into disrepair, with an off-putting alcoholic owner, Bill (Hugo Weaving), who’s deep in debt. His partner, the tough-as-nails cook, Carol (Ursula Yovich), keeps him and the bar afloat. To Hanna and Liv, Carol is the closest thing to protection, but she can’t be there at every moment – and in those instances, they’re especially vulnerable. The best friends are met with overwhelming chaos as they’re thrown into a den of thirsty, rowdy men. They’re made to feel they must please them with a smile to protect themselves, taking every crass comment with a laugh. The anticipation of something terrible happening increases with every minute.
As we’re shown in “The Royal Hotel,” it’s terrifying to turn the corner to see a drunk man staring at you with uncertain intentions in his eyes. There are many moments where the girls are put into dangerous situations that are almost as unbearable to watch as it is for them to experience. And, even as they befriend some of the guys (like Toby Wallace’s Matty, who is annoying at first but later comes off as nice and charming), it’s hard to know who you can trust. What’s interesting is Liv and Hanna’s response to their situation: very early on, Hanna expresses her apprehension about being surrounded by these “disgusting” men and says she wants to leave, but Liv convinces her to stay. Liv is very dismissive of the sexist and patriarchal attitudes of the miners, stating that it’s a cultural thing or that they’re just “lonely.” This is quite a powerful statement about society’s enabling of this behavior, but it’s also quite shocking to hear from a female character in this situation. This kind of behavior is enabled on both sides of the coin.
Unfortunately, the weakest aspect of the script is in the writing of these characters, leading the viewer to search for a deeper understanding of what led the characters to do what they did. We learn nothing about them — their past together and/or their life at home. For much of the film, it feels like Liv is either blind to what’s going on or doesn’t care, especially when Hanna expresses her fear and doesn’t get Liv’s support. This can be frustrating, especially when Liv suggests that she’s running away from something a few times, but we don’t learn what that is. Is this the reasoning behind not caring about what’s going on around her? And, has Hanna had a previous experience that would explain why she’s much more on guard? Ultimately, they feel like empty vessels for the audience, especially men, to be put in their shoes and experience what women have to go through daily – which isn’t a bad thing, despite the viewer wanting more.
Garner and Henwick deliver strong performances that culminate in a boiling point of anger and transformation. The changes we observe their characters undergo lead to a sweet moment of well-deserved catharsis. Those hoping for lots of vengeful violence won’t get it here, but Green’s control keeps it grounded. Her prowess for creating tension is like water in a kettle; it boils, with steam eventually coming through with high-pitched force. Here, the sound is a scream of outrage.