Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel is a concise, nail-biting movie about the world as experienced by women, and the aggressive (and often unspoken) impositions that define the male spaces around them. It follows Liv (Jessica Henwick) and Hanna (Julia Garner), two American backpackers in the Australian outback as they spend a couple of weeks bartending in a rural mining town to make some cash. It’s a keenly observed piece that blooms in jagged and discomforting ways, with skin-crawling detours where nothing necessarily goes off the rails, but the possibility always lingers.
However, it also builds to a climax whose cathartic framing feels ever so slightly unearned, and whose narrow perspective (from a racial standpoint) leaves a bitter aftertaste. As a whole, it stands as both a feminist filmmaking triumph, yet one that exposes the limitations of both white feminism and Western feminism, in a broader colonial context. Which is unfortunate, because its climactic flub is a mere matter of a handful of concluding shots to what is otherwise a spectacular artistic feat.
The Royal Hotel follows a vacation gone wrong.
Green — whose last film, The Assistant, was a much quieter deconstruction of male power — begins her latest with pulsating energy, at a nightclub aboard a fancy yacht in Sydney, where Liv and Hanna introduce themselves as Canadian tourists. “People like Canadians,” Liv explains. It’s a film keenly aware of global geopolitics, as well as the disruptive place Americans tend to occupy in travel stories, even if it eventually mishandles this dynamic. The outgoing Hanna hooks up with a Norwegian tourist, while the more reserved Liv tries to buy them drinks. When Liv’s credit card is declined, the two friends are forced to improvise for a couple of weeks.
With the assistance of a work-travel program, they’re able to score a temporary job, albeit one of the less-desired ones given their late application: a bar in the middle of nowhere called The Royal Hotel, where they’re set to replace a pair of young English women passing through. The hesitant Liv isn’t too keen to stick around, given their shoddy lodging space above the bar itself, but Hanna reminds her that they’ve been seeking adventure. This could be exactly what they’ve been looking for.
Their new boss, Billy (Hugo Weaving), is rough around the edges and a heavy drinker, but he guides the pair through the bar’s ins and outs with military efficiency. His girlfriend, Carol (Burarra and Serbian actor Ursula Yovich), an Aboriginal woman and the bar’s head cook, provides the only hints of warmth and feminine presence they can feel for miles around, except for one older bar patron who laughs heartily at the men’s demeaning jokes. However, Carol is often too preoccupied with kitchen work (and with managing Billy’s drunken outbursts) to offer much comfort.
The patrons are mostly gruff, uncouth men with their own sense of routine and camaraderie as local miners. Since they comprise the majority of Billy’s customer base, he’s willing to let the odd condescending or sexist comment slide if it means a steadier income. There’s immediate, silent friction at the Royal between the American newcomers and the embedded Aussie crowd — though at least some of it is cultural, like their respective discomfort and ease with the word “cunt” — and while it starts out routine and familiar, it begins to slowly cascade. Things start to seem out of place. Before long, Green begins employing full-on genre flourishes to tell her story, transforming The Royal Hotel into one of the year’s most effective thrillers.
Kitty Green borrows the language of horror and thriller films.
Despite the flaws in its perspective, The Royal Hotel is far from didactic in the way it creates and evolves compelling character dynamics. There’s a reciprocity to each moment of care and hostility, and a sense of genuine community that Liv and Hanna stumble into. The bar’s frequent customers include the quiet, mysterious Dolly (Daniel Henshall); the helpful and sensitive Teeth (James Frecheville); and the rowdy but inviting Matty (Toby Wallace); their interactions with the two women, and with their fellow patrons, help us form a base of understanding of who these people are, and the place in which Liv and Hanna find themselves.
After a few days, as the young Americans spend time with a handful of local Aussie guys, the prospect of romance arises, or at the very least the prospect of sexual encounters. However, in the dim confines of the Hotel’s living quarters, these possibilities rest on a knife’s edge. A signal misread or ignored, coupled with fragile and volatile egos, could so easily make things nasty. The mere shapes of these men — from their silhouettes, to their imposing, inebriated shuffles across darkened hallways — becomes instantly terrifying.
Of course, things look a little different in the sunlight, but as the days go by, and as Liv and Hanna become more acquainted with men like Dolly and Matty, the film’s aesthetic and narrative perspective begins to morph in unsettling ways, becoming more intimate and claustrophobic. It increasingly makes Hanna its sole protagonist, severing her POV from that of Liv’s in a manner that both causes friction between the two friends and isolates them from one another during vulnerable moments, especially as Liv gets increasingly caught up in the allure of a liberating foreign adventure.
At the drop of a hat, simple bar conversations become imbued with razor-wire tension, perfectly embodying the notion that in women’s lives, there’s a thin line between a road trip movie and a horror film.
The Royal Hotel is a step up from The Assistant.
Green’s last two movies make for an intriguing back-to-back case study. The Assistant, which casts Garner similarly in the role of an observer, has its protagonist react to the odd and uncomfortable environment created in the office of a powerful film executive (implied to be a Harvey Weinstein type, though he never appears on screen).
It’s effective on occasion, especially when Garner’s eponymous assistant comes face to face with a ruthless, borderline sociopathic HR head played by Matthew MacFadyen. But for the most part, it seeks to capture the way working in this helpless environment infects one woman’s daily routine. At times, it’s molded in the vein of filmmaker Chantal Akerman, and her observational masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles — the appearance and technique of which The Assistant borrows heavily, though it pales in comparison to its inspiration.
Where The Assistant plays like a mere impression of Akerman, The Royal Hotel is much more spiritually in line with Jeanne Dielman, whether by accident or intent. Green’s latest couldn’t be more different from Akerman’s 1975 feminist landmark in style or subject matter — Akerman observes her character quietly moving through her own kitchen at a distance; Green frequently makes the edges of the frame close in on Hanna in a foreign locale — but they’re strikingly similar in spirit, capturing the slow and volatile buildup of impositions and indignities that eventually boil over into striking violence. The Assistant, on the other hand, simmers at a constant temperature.
However, The Royal Hotel is also marred by an over-eagerness to wrap things up in a neat, cathartic bow that ends up constricting it. Its conclusion doesn’t feel entirely befitting of the nuance and substance it captures prior. Like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, it’s another example of a film whose desire for cinematic justice pushes it to a strange and blinkered place, where its version of feminism transforms from a bristling portrayal of the contours of gendered violence to a “Fuck, yeah!” fist pump. The too-tidy ending sweeps any lingering discomforts under the rug, in favor of a distinctly white feminist vision of retribution.
While the movie’s climactic images are incendiary in nature (and are best left unspoiled), they fail to be truly provocative. The only challenge The Royal Hotel presents by the end is regressive in nature; where it seeks to symbolically dismantle one power structure, it simultaneously upholds and embodies another: that of Western colonialism. While it attempts to get around this by conveniently removing its Aboriginal characters from its purview, simply ignoring its own racial implications doesn’t mean they cease to exist. Not when the ripple effects of Liv and Hanna’s actions have direct consequences for Carol’s ongoing plight at the hands of white men — a victimhood that isn’t treated as worthy of the same rigorous cinematic inquiry as theirs. Which is a shame, considering the fine-tuned artistry at play for about 90% of the preceding film.
The result, despite Green’s deft tonal control and masterful genre transformations, is a victory that rings hollow at a moment when artistic precision matters most.
The Royal Hotel was reviewed out of the Toronto Film Festival. It opens in theaters Oct. 6.