As it turns out, tending bar in a remote Australian mining village is not an ideal career move. To be fair, any woman who starts tending bar anywhere will very soon have a story about the grossest thing a dude told them to do for a tip. The brutality inflicted upon all service workers is appallingly expected, somehow baked into our lazy capitalist understanding of what such jobs should entail. The Royal Hotel isn’t about the restaurant industry, but writer/director Kitty Green and cowriter Oscar Redding keenly understand that toxic masculinity and predation are even less hidden there than other locales.
Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are running from something, likely multiple somethings. The Royal Hotel thoughtfully forgoes explicit, detailed backstories in favor of hints and suggestions. Hanna’s mom drank “just enough,” she explains once while enduring only semi-welcomed flirtation. Liv says they chose Australia because it was the furthest distance away from where they were. Such things are enough to fill in the blanks. It is particularly effective because the women are clearly meant to be representative depictions, physical touchpoints more than discrete characters.
Out of money, the travelers use a service that places them in a desolate mining town working for a bar owner named Billy (Hugo Weaving). He routinely drowns his ability to walk upright in alcohol. He’s an asshole sober too, for what it’s worth. His reluctant partner, Carol (Ursula Yovich), does her best to keep things functioning and looks out for Hanna and Liv as best she can. She simply doesn’t have the mental, physical, or emotional energy to “mama bear” two Americans on a rebellious holiday.
For a film in which almost nothing happens, The Royal Hotel is indescribably tense. Silent leers from the men in the bar descend into verbalized abuses and foreshadow the potential for much, much worse. Hanna can see the roadmap to Hell, but Liv is lost, misreading warning signs as signposts for adventure. Despite its specific scenario and setting, the message is broad: Snakes are everywhere, even if they may be worse in some parts of Australia.
Garner is commendable, while Henwick gets a bit shortchanged by the nature of her role. Above all else, The Royal Hotel is a showcase for Green’s talent. She coaxes precisely terrifying performances from every minor miner who pops up to offer a sexist trope. She controls the plummet into outright danger. She trusts the showing, forgoes the telling, and resists the urge to slap an obvious label on the events. The restraint is likely to turn many folks off, but they were probably never going to drink deep from this stiff pour.
A movie this good should find a following, but this one may struggle to do so. It isn’t audacious enough to set most tongues wagging. It chooses subtlety and suggestion over shouting and shaming. It feels like we are losing these sorts of films. We have too few well-crafted, lower key musings. We have a shortage of deftly made indies content to make a point and not belabor it. Here’s hoping Green gets to keep making more, because they are so very quietly essential to the medium.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Katie Hogan at Film Hounds says “The so-called culture that the women experience ranges from inappropriate comments, physical and verbal harassment to straight up violent acts. Green, a keen observer, carefully creates every interaction, either pushing further or cutting short to what is expected.”
Alison Willmore at Vulture says “The realization that Hanna is much quicker to come to than Liv is that the structures of civilization they take for granted aren’t worth much when people refuse to abide by them, and that there are no adults in the room to take charge when things get out of hand.”
Nuha Hassan says “Green knows how to balance suspense and ambiguity while building a social narrative of aggressive male behaviours. There is a deeper psychological commentary that weaves itself into the story that shows the variations of these behaviours and how they escalate to nefarious levels.”