Mark Asch


The Royal Hotel – first-look review

More cinema of ominous discomfort from Kitty Green as she takes us to an out-of-the-way Australian boozer for some low-boiling violence.

Every bartender knows that the hardest part of the job is controlling the room. But The Royal Hotel, the Australian Outback outpost in the new film by Kitty Green would prove a test for far more seasoned service workers than Hanna (Jessica Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), two backpackers just trying to be good sports even as the orders pile up and the men edge ever closer into their personal space. That’s because it’s full of bearded miners all in identical miner’s overalls – like a uniform of rugged masculinity – shotgunning beers, egging on the learning-disabled boy to set off firecrackers in the corner, ordering “Dickins Cider” (say it out loud).

Hanna and Liv are traveling in Sydney, enjoying party-boat raves and buzzed hookups with random strangers, until they run out of money and take a temporary placement at the Royal Hotel, a brokedown palace out where cellphone reception doesn’t reach and the bus only comes through maybe once or twice a week. Like in Green’s previous feature, the office-set The Assistant, The Royal Hotel film takes place largely in a single location that’s a world unto itself. (The production designer on The Assistant was Fletcher Chancey; on The Royal Hotel it is Leah Popple.)

Shot in widescreen befitting the salty sun-baked expanses, the venue is as epically scaled as a Western saloon, with a long bar, floorboards scuffed just so, and shelves full of dusty old bottles and glass jars containing preserved snakes. In both films, Green has built what a themed twitter account might call “Workplaces with Vaguely Threatening Auras.”

The low hum of a photocopier and HVAC system cloaked The Assistant in an ambient banality, fitting for a movie about a Harvey Weinstein–like film producer-predator and the corporate hierarchy built up to enable and protect him. The Royal Hotel has the slam of a dishwasher, the bang of a cooler door that won’t stay shut—short, sharp shocks to match the sudden surges of testosterone that throw Hanna and Liv off their equilibrium.

Two features into her career as a fiction filmmaker, it’s safe to call Green a master of the microaggression. She calibrates moments of ambiguity and ominousness, and maps out the subtle ways in which young women are recruited over to the far side of their own boundaries. From their first meeting with the Royal Hotel’s landlord — a bearish and weather-beaten Hugo Weaving — Hanna and Liv are too cowed by his short temper, too uncertain in their new surroundings, to call him out for the gratuitous edge of contempt in the orders he barks out between swigs of piss-warm lager.

The bar’s regulars are right out of Wake in Fright, shouting for beers, roaring for the girls to get their tits out, yelling as they bang on the doors for the girls to let them in—but only so they can have a drink, aye? A soft-featured local boy (Toby Wallace) who flirts with Hanna by singing along to Kylie Minogue as he drives her out to a swmming hole pushes up against the edge of consent when he pushes her into the water before she’s ready.

Even Hanna’s Scandinavian hookup from earlier in the trip (Herbert Nordrum, the sweet bro of The Worst Person in the World, going uproariously broad in his second language) gets caught up the atmosphere of competitive mateship and casual slurs. (Though really, if you’re a cosmopolitan knowledge worker who shows up in a place like that in a purple shirt like his, you’re as likely to get menaced by the locals as you are to get drinks with them; Green may have picked the wrong story beat here.)

The Assistant was focalised entirely through Garner’s titular character, whose various flickers, throughout the film, of naivete, obeisance, agency, self-doubt, moral sense and complicity embody the complexity of individual responses within an abusive context, and make it difficult to act with clarity and decisiveness. But with The Royal Hotel Green and her fellow screenwriter Oscar Redding make the more schematic decision to contrast their joint protagonists’ attitudes. Henwick’s Liv is the cool girl, slamming shots and letting her guard down even around creeps — they’re fine, they’re harmless, they’re nice guys, just get along — while Garner’s Hanna is guard-up and protective, with an eye for patriarchal subtexts and a nose for danger, who can’t take a dirty joke or say “the c-word” out loud.

After the self-contained and simmering Assistant this feels like Green’s attempt to make similar material more accessible. There are hints of explanatory backstory (including from a drunk character literally vomits out exposition), and one character, a lurking creep, who’s photographed like a horror-movie villain at uncanny positions with the frame. All these elements drive a third-act escalation toward a major-key ending that is not just overtly violent but outright cathartic—the former is fair enough, the latter a diminishment of Green’s more insidious talents.

Published 8 Sep 2023

Tags: Australian cinema Harvey Weinstein Hugo Weaving Julia Garner Kitty Green Wake in Fright

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