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film review
  • The Royal Hotel
  • Directed by Kitty Green
  • Written by Kitty Green and Oscar Redding
  • Starring Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick and Hugo Weaving
  • Classification 14A; 91 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Oct. 6

Critic’s Pick

The harsh light of day plays a central role in Kitty Green’s unsettling and nerve-rattling new film, The Royal Hotel.

In the thriller’s first few minutes, young American backpackers Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are buying rounds of beer (“Foster’s!”) in the dark of an Australian nightclub. But after Liv’s credit card is rejected, she exits the pounding blur of the club to reveal that the pair are actually onboard a gigantic party boat, one sailing under the bright daytime Sydney sky. The night-for-day disorientation will repeat itself later on, when Hanna and Liv have reluctantly taken jobs at a seedy bar deep in the Outback, where the booze-soaked “fun,” such as it is, runs from dusk till dawn – and continues to linger, like the stench of a squashed cigarette, long after the sun has crept back up into the horizon.

Based on the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie by Pete Gleeson, Green’s new film continues a tense and important conversation that the Australian filmmaker began with her feature-narrative debut, 2019′s The Assistant. While that film – also starring Garner – focused on the million small aggressions that poisoned a workplace led by a Harvey Weinstein-esque movie producer, The Royal Hotel explores the toxic power dynamics that men can hold over women on a grander scale. One that is as blistering as it is frustrating.

Once arriving at the dilapidated establishment of the title – neither royal nor a hotel – Hanna and Liv have different fight-or-flight responses. Hanna, who in small snippets of dialogue reveals that she is outrunning a traumatic past involving an alcoholic mother, wants to immediately head back to the metropolitan comforts of Sydney. But Liv pushes her friend along to stay for the cash, even when the local miners who treat the Royal Hotel as their second home start to make life cruelly and unbearably hard for the two women. Sexist jokes turn into veiled threats, which threaten to pivot into full-blown violence. Boys will be boys, says Liv, not quite believing her own defence. Meanwhile, the bar’s gruff owner Billy (Hugo Weaving), who seems perpetually one can of Foster’s away from passing out, doesn’t exactly mitigate matters.

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The tidy genius of Green’s film is that she manages to keep the tension at a constant state of low-boil simmer. Like Hanna, the audience is primed to keep one eye on the background of the action, anxiously aware that the bar’s male customers might explode into primal rage at any moment. One drink order bumbled, one flirtation ignored, one wrong word said, and the “harmless game” that the men tell themselves they are playing quickly reveals its true, hateful nature.

The only trouble with this approach is that it requires Green to make her audience care about Hanna and Liv as more than just potential cardboard-cutout victims, but fully layered characters who could be you or me. Regrettably, the slim film doesn’t devote enough time to developing Hanna or Liv beyond their opposites-attract friendship. Hanna is especially under-coloured, though this can be partially mitigated by imagining that Garner is simply playing the same character from The Assistant, transferred Down Under.

This deficit of character undercuts the film’s fiery ending, an otherwise wonderfully sharp moment that would land as the perfect punchline if Green had spent only a little more time developing her heroes. (Although it does give moviegoers time to wonder what Australia’s tourism board might think about the production.)

Still, the fact that The Royal Hotel keeps its audience as captive as its leads until that final moment is an impressive and ultimately incendiary feat. You will walk out of the pitch-black of the theatre startled by the brightness outside, unsettled that Green has shone a harsh light on a dark truth always known to be true.

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