'The Royal Hotel': A Subtle, Yet Unflinching Tale of Workplace Misogyny
Kitty Green's debut feature, The Assistant, is a tense, claustrophobic thriller that acts as a perfect indictment of toxic masculinity and predatory behavior in the workplace. It is one of my favorite films from 2020, and immediately had me curious to see what Green would do next. With her latest film, The Royal Hotel, we see her tread some familiar territory, specifically in regards to its larger themes on masculinity. But while her previous film was set almost entirely in an office over the course of a day, this film takes us to the vast Australian Outback, and unfolds over several days. It also has a ruggedness to it that heightens the danger of the film, and makes the audience wonder where the story will go and what the characters will do next. This unpredictability drives The Royal Hotel through its relatively simple premise, and the combination of the two makes for a rich, compelling film that manages to be anxiety-inducing, funny, and quite bold all at the same time.
Hanna and Liv (Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick, respectively) are two young backpackers traveling through Australia. After realizing that they are short on cash, they take on temporary live-in jobs at a remote pub called The Royal Hotel. Upon arriving, they already feel unsure about their new situation, but this only gets worse once they start working. The various men that frequent the pub are crass, intimidating, and rather volatile. As the film goes on, their behavior becomes more and more upsetting, and Hanna and Liv find themselves in a hazardous situation.
Between this and The Assistant, Kitty Green has shown that she is excellent at creating tense atmospheres in her work. The Assistant makes such great use of its office setting, as it feels so taut and confining by design. With The Royal Hotel, we get a similar feeling in the pub scenes, as it is so crowded in most of these moments, and adds to the unease of the film. But we also see the film make good use of its Outback setting, as the vast, open landscapes seen here give off a feeling of isolation that mirrors what our two main characters are feeling. The pub is practically the only true location for much of the film, and it is essentially our only sense of civilization in the film as well. The fact that it is predominantly populated with shady characters only highlights the film's larger themes of toxic masculinity, and adds to the overall tension of the film. The remote setting also contributes to this, as the danger that Hanna and Liv find themselves in is so palpable, and we honestly wonder if they're going to make it out alive at certain points. There's an uncertainty that permeates the film that kept me invested, and made me nervous for much of the film.
It's fair to say that Green is a stronger director than she is a writer, as the script does seem rather straightforward and simple on paper. I am inclined to agree with this statement, as her eye for filmmaking is so strong, but I wouldn't discount the script for this film either. Yes, it is a bit light on plot, but this translates to the reality of what Hanna and Liv are experiencing, and what many women experience when placed in a similar situation. Green is a rather naturalistic filmmaker, and is more concerned with capturing real life issues and dynamics than telling a "well-made" story. And through this she is able to tell some arresting stories, as she is so great at allowing the audience to see things from the perspectives of her characters. This film does a stellar job of putting the male characters firmly through the POV of our two leads, and it is handled so effortlessly and realistically. A lot of this comes out in the way that Green frames some of the scenes or in the performances from the actors, but so much of it wouldn't be possible without the firm foundation of the script, which Green and company build off of beautifully.
One of Green's other great assets is how well she uses the camera. The Royal Hotel sees her collaborate once again with Michael Latham, who was also her DP on The Assistant. An early shot that transitions from a dark club on a boat to the bright, sunny world outside that truly impressed me, and it is one of many tracking shots in the film that roped me into the film. This mixes well with the moments of stillness in the film, as what the camera chooses to linger on, versus the more active sequences plays into the overall tension of the film so well. The visual style of the film is so alluring, which makes the less than savory characters and their actions pop significantly.
Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick are two actors that have both really impressed me in the various projects I've seen them in over the years, and this film continues that streak. They are both so good together, but they get a handful of moments to shine individually. Garner's performance is more controlled, as her character is more of the responsible one, while Henwick relishes in being a bit more free-spirited. Henwick's performance is the one that really stood out to me, as she feels so natural in the role, and she is more unpredictable than Garner in a way that you can't help but be drawn to her. This isn't to say that Garner doesn't have her moments, it's just that they are a bit quieter in the overall world of the film. Garner is such a great fit for Green's work, as her performance in The Assistant is one of my favorites of the decade so far. She is excellent here as well, and handles the more subdued nature of the role perfectly. Both are so good in this film, and I sincerely believe that they are two of our finest young actors working today.
The supporting cast is superb as well, and is made up of a collection of great Australian actors. Hugo Weaving is the only one I knew of going into this film, and he is exceptional as always. Weaving isn't playing a straight-up villain in this film, but there are undercurrents of that energy that flows throughout his performance. From the moment that he first appears, we aren't sure if we can trust him, and this ambiguity is played so well by Weaving. Daniel Henshall is the most unsettling of the bunch, as he is the most overtly evil of the bunch. His character, Dolly, made me very uncomfortable every time he showed up, and the way Henshall plays him is so realistic. He feels like a guy you know that gives you a bad vibe almost instantly, and the fact that this particular character is almost inescapable is even more unnerving. I also enjoyed James Frecheville's performance as Teeth, a local miner and one of the few male characters in the film to have any sense of decency. He is an imposing figure in terms of appearance, but there is a kindness to him that is a nice reprieve from the nastiness of the other patrons of the pub. Perhaps my favorite performance outside of Garner and Henwick would have to be Ursula Yovich, who plays Carol, another worker at the pub. The character herself is fascinating, as she is standoffish, likely having to develop a tough exterior after years of serving unruly patrons, and she is one of the few female characters in the film, period. Yovich has such a strong screen presence, and the film knows just when to deploy it. Her steely facade and matter-of-fact delivery is one of the most memorable things about the film for me, and she is someone who I hope to see in more films in the future.
The Royal Hotel might be easy for some to write off as thinly written or too simple, but I feel it is a sharp, unsettling thriller that does a great job of showing toxic masculinity and how it affects women and how it infects entire communities. It approaches its themes head-on, and builds its tension to a fever pitch, and an ending that is surprising, but might be the only true solution to what the characters are faced with in this film. This is a film that I like even more the more I sit with it, and I'm sure that some won't be as high on this film as I am. That said, I love this film so much, and I am so excited to see what Kitty Green does next.