Australian director Kitty Green’s second narrative feature The Royal Hotel is a wholly unnerving and totally engrossing thriller. Atmospheric and all too realistic, it’s the kind of story that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. The film is paced to perfection and each and every well-planned element is woven expertly together to build layers upon layers of truly discomforting suspense.
The Royal Hotel follows two young Canadian women (Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick) who, after running out of money on a backpacking trip around Australia, are forced to take up temp work at a bar in a remote mining community in the north. “You will need to be okay with a little male attention,” the recruitment manager advises the friends, clearly vying for title of The Biggest Understatement in the film. The large, unruly Outback community is welcoming but for all the wrong reasons. #MeToo and informed consent are campaigns and concepts that have failed to reach this dusty roadhouse and Hanna and Liv are constantly harassed and inundated with crass jokes and lewd, leering comments. Distressed and angry, Hanna and Live weigh their options but decide they’ll stick it out for just a few weeks to earn the money they need. Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all. But it’s not long before things begin to spin rapidly out of control as it becomes apparent The Royal Hotel’s patrons see the women more as targets than bartenders.
The two besties, who initially seem quite similar, become polar opposites as they each try to deal with what is truly an untenable situation. Liv finds it easier to smile and press on, drinking to make the time go faster, while Hanna attempts to remain aloof and under the radar, worried that if she lets down her guard bad things will happen. It turns out one is more right than the other, but vigilance isn’t always enough to stop the inevitable. The constant stress begins to weigh on them both and cracks begin to slowly show in their friendship.
It’s not a simple task to compose a narrative that truly keeps you guessing, but that’s exactly what Green and her co-writer Oscar Redding manage to pull off here – from the opening scene in Sydney, right through to its explosively satisfying finale. The tension builds steadily throughout and though there are a few moments of calm and quiet at the hotel, the film never allows the women–or indeed, the audience–to fully let their guard down. We don’t find out much about Hanna or Liv overall, but somehow that’s not necessary to achieve maximum impact. Their perilous situation is sadly recognisable and, even more so, relatable for most women, and it’s easy to feel for them and their situation no matter who you are.
In lesser hands, The Royal Hotel could feel far more one-dimensional and lacking in meaning, but with Green’s keen eye the film becomes a riveting exploration of isolation and what it truly feels like to be a young woman in the world. It helps too that this talented cast manages to strike the proper note throughout. Both Garner and Henwick nail their characters without saying much at all, as do Hugo Weaving, Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace and Ursula Yovich in their supporting roles.
Kudos too go to cinematographer Michael Latham who simultaneously makes the hotel and its surroundings look both forbidding and beautiful. Australia’s Outback can seem truly otherworldly at times and that quality serves the storytelling here as if it were tailormade. And when it comes to the interior, the set design team adds just the right amount of grit and decay. You can practically smell the sweat and stale beer of the decades-old bar.
But it’s Green’s purposeful, confident and refreshing storytelling that truly holds this film together. She knows exactly how to ratchet up the tension and is successful at making things feel monumental and intimate in equal measure. If The Royal Hotel is any indication of her creativity and perspective as a filmmaker, then this is just the start of what’s sure to be a career worth keeping your eye on.
The Royal Hotel premiered at Telluride on Sept. 1 and screened at TIFF beginning Sept. 11. It will be released by Neon Features.