The Royal Hotel
In 2019, writer/director Kitty Green made her narrative feature debut with the riveting drama The Assistant. The story of a young woman working as an assistant to a powerful (Harvey Weinstein-esque) studio executive, it was a surprisingly suspenseful character study about power dynamics. It centered around a fantastic performance from Julia Garner and raised both women’s profiles significantly. Now, they team up again for The Royal Hotel, another tense drama about a couple of women feeling helpless in the face of predatory men.
This is a compelling, well-made, movie, with the ominous emptiness of the Australian Outback as an effective setting and, once again, a strong performance from Julia Garner. The message isn’t as intriguing this time, with the themes not hitting as hard and a few characters who aren’t drawn sharply enough. While this is not as powerful a story, Green is excellent at generating tension without showing anything overtly threatening and she creates an atmosphere of drunken menace that is truly scary.
Hanna and Liv are Americans on vacation in Australia. When they run out of money, they take a work-and-live job at a run-down bar in the middle of nowhere. Liv is okay with the attention they get from the lonely and aggressive men who drink there, but Hanna is immediately uncomfortable (it doesn’t even take one night for them to be told they should smile more). Things get more unsettling as the locals seem to start thinking that they deserve more than just good service for their tips.
The screenplay (by Green and Oscar Redding) establishes the differences between the two women in the opening scenes. They are both there for a fun adventure, yet Hanna is cautious and responsible, while Liv is neither of those things. Hanna is concerned about living in a strange place, several hours from any city, surrounded by unruly men. Liv is kind of excited by it. When they begin their new job, Hanna is instantly put-off by the crude jokes and flirtation. Liv basically tells her to lighten up. Their dynamic works for a while, though eventually Liv’s obliviousness strains believability a bit. Hanna had a parent who was an alcoholic, so her lack of tolerance for these drunk jerks is understandable. Liv essentially becomes the best friend who makes dumb decisions, with no explained motivation for her questionable actions. That definitely hurts the impact of their combined arc.
Jessica Henwick does what she can with Liv, but is limited by an underwritten character. Garner, on the other hand, is so good as Hanna. She expresses so much fear and trauma with a frightened smile, a meek line reading or a look of barely controlled distress. Both of them go into this as a cool vacation, however Hanna senses their danger pretty early on and gets progressively more afraid, even as Liv keeps telling her everything is fine. Garner plays that internal isolation perfectly, staying in tune with the tone the entire way.
Liv thinks these are harmless guys just letting off steam. Hanna knows they are dangerous. The tension comes from exactly how right she is. There are a couple of scenes involving a man named Dolly (played by Daniel Henshall like he has decided he can do whatever he wants with these new bartenders from the first moment he lays eyes on them) that really taps into the terror Hanna must feel, knowing she is on her own if he tries something. That fear, that helplessness, is what The Royal Hotel (87 minutes without the end credits) is about. When it focuses on that, it is undeniably effective.
It works more than it doesn’t despite Liv being underdeveloped and an unconvincing conclusion. It is a real-world thriller, taking a common situation and making the audience feel what the victims feel. In two movies, Kitty Green has already proven herself to be great at this. I certainly hope her next collaboration with Julia Garner comes sooner rather than later.
3½ out of 5
Cast; Julia Garner as Hanna
Jessica Henwick as Liv
Hugo Weaving as Billy
Toby Wallace as Matty
Daniel Henshall as Dolly
James Frecheville as Teeth
Ursula Yovich as Carol
Directed by Kitty Green
Written by Kitty Green and Oscar Redding