The Royal Hotel (2023, dir. Kitty Green) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 4, 2023

Certificate: 18

Running Time: 91 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 3 November 2023

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN THE ROYAL HOTEL?

Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Hugo Weaving, Toby Wallace, Ursula Yovich, Daniel Henshall, James Frecheville, Herbert Nordrum, Barbara Lowing, Bree Bain

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Kitty Green (director, writer), Oscar Redding (writer), Iain Canning, Kath Shelper, Emile Sherman and Liz Watts (producers), Jed Palmer (composer), Michael Latham (cinematographer), Kasra Rassoulzadegan (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In Australia, a pair of back-packers (Garner and Henwick) take a job at remote pub…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE ROYAL HOTEL?

For her narrative follow-up to the quietly disturbing pseudo-Weinstein drama The Assistant, filmmaker Kitty Green heads home to her native Australia to show that rampant misogyny and sexual harassment aren’t just limited to the Manhattan offices of big-time movie producers. As shown in The Royal Hotel, it can happen even in the most remote of places, but still leave just as much trauma in its wake for anyone unfortunate to be in receipt of unwanted advances.

Green, taking heavy inspiration from the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, does not for a second soften the overwhelming psychological impact that toxic male behaviour can have on people, particularly women who, as in both the documentary and this fictional drama, are just trying to survive in this crazy world. She uses that pent-up energy to create a thriller that is genuinely suspenseful, but also remarkably restrained in its admirable resistance to go into full-on movie territory, which makes its themes land even harder.

We are quickly introduced to Hanna (Julia Garner, reuniting with Green after headlining The Assistant) and Viv (Jessica Henwick), a pair of Canadian friends who are travelling through Australia, having fun drinking and dancing in daytime nightclubs, as most tourists would. However, when the pair find themselves strapped for cash, they are forced to take jobs as bartenders at a pub in an isolated mining town, where the regulars and even the pub’s alcoholic owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) frequently bark vulgarities and chat-up lines as they serve them drinks. At first, the friends assume it’s just part of the job, but the attention that they keep getting from the men in the town, including boisterous Matty (Toby Wallace) and the psychotic Dolly (Daniel Henshall), soon grows more and more uncomfortable – at least, it does for the more cautious Hanna, while the more easy-going Liv is quick to pass their blatantly creepy behaviour off as playful or even a sign of loneliness.

Similar to The Assistant, which also dealt with systemic harassment in a much more professional environment, The Royal Hotel explores the societal reflex to ignore or attempt to justify actions which are morally unjustifiable. Throughout, both Hanna and Liv experience waves of mistreatment by their customers, the majority of them of course being male, and it quickly transpires that between the two of them, Hanna is the only one wise enough to know exactly what these men want.

Not only that, but it appears to have been severely ingrained into their minds that they are, in some way, owed a bit of female companionship, whether or not their object of desire fully consents or even appears to appreciate the attention. Meanwhile, Liv cowers behind the “boys will be boys” argument, putting their flippant remarks and frequent use of the c-word all down to cultural differences (even so, I’m pretty sure the c-word means the same thing on every continent), for reasons that are only ever hinted at, but enough to leave Hanna practically stranded as she seems to be the only one to take her harassment seriously.

By having her two leads react so differently to such behaviour, Green sets an interesting character-based conflict that appears to represent the disturbing passivity of female harassment in isolated societies. Given that this is a town slap-bang in the middle of the Australian desert, where the alcohol flows smoother than actual water (to where the local pool is completely bone-dry, despite the hot weather), it perhaps isn’t so shocking that the men are a bunch of leering, predatory psychos whose entitlement is on another level.

Even the supposed “nice” one of the bunch, a seemingly gentle miner named Teeth (James Frecheville), is clearly the type of nice-guy creep who always has an ulterior motive, and who rams their truck into someone’s trailer home when they get rejected by one of the girls. This is a place where these behavioural patterns have been allowed to thrive for far too long, and all it takes is an outsider like Hanna to call out their unruly manners, but also another outsider like Liv to immediately try and rationalise stuff that is clearly wrong anywhere and everywhere.

Green conveys her intriguing and layered commentary on the normalisation of toxic masculinity through slow-burn direction that relies far more on mood and atmosphere to create an uncomfortable amount of tension, and a script – co-written by Oscar Redding – that neatly lays out the unbearable situation without amplifying it for dramatic effect.

While there is the occasional leap in logic, particularly with Liv’s all-too naïve approach to the constant harassment she and her friend receive, the performances by Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick are formidable enough to make you see and largely understand both of their differing perspectives. Meanwhile, you have the likes of Daniel Henshall who, in a particularly unsettling role, says everything they need to about their unhinged threat of a character with a simple and creepy grin from across the bar, while the other male characters, including a permanently drunk Hugo Weaving, play far too well into their casually flippant and offensive personas.

The most impressive element of The Royal Hotel, as it was with The Assistant before it, is how it never goes beyond its limitations, and I mean that in a good way. This is the kind of movie where no big dramatic event has to happen in order to get its point across, because the tone and vibes that Green spends her movie building up have already done the heavy-lifting, and if it were to suddenly turn into an all-out genre climax, ideally something along the lines of Straw Dogs or I Spit On Your Grave, it would not have matched the aesthetic of the rest of the movie.

It is a much more contained and thought-provoking thriller that therefore feels more powerful in its smaller stature, with themes that are certainly obvious but executed well, with a degree of subtlety that positions Green as a rising mistress of suspense.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Royal Hotel is a suspenseful and impressively contained thriller that sees filmmaker Kitty Green exploring the dangerous passivity of toxic male behaviour through a neatly-layered script and slow-burn direction which, on top of formidable turns by Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick, makes her a rising mistress of suspense.

Four of of five stars

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