Check in to “The Royal Hotel”
Julia Garner struts through a dance club in the first shot of “The Royal Hotel” like she owns the place. It’s a welcome change. In the last film by director Kitty Green, “The Assistant”, the place mostly owned her. Green’s 2019 feature remains the best film to come out of the MeToo movement, chronicling the impact of a culture of sexual harassment and assault on an entry-level employee, played by Garner, in a Miramax-esque production house.
Both films tell of the everyday horror of being a woman, a story we cannot hear enough. Both films are lean and uncompromising. The setting has changed, but the message remains: Whether in a Tribeca office or a bar in the Australian outback, women risk their lives just to do their job.
Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are Americans on vacation Down Under, although they lie and say they’re Canadians because “everybody likes Canada.” When they run out of money, they have to take jobs as bartenders at a small, mining-town bar in the middle of nowhere. There is no internet, presumably no cell phone service (we never see a cell phone), and no police. The closest hospital is three hours away. There appear to be no other women around.
Does the situation strain credulity? Yes, it does. Surely there would be other jobs they could take. Should we care? No. “The Royal Hotel” is not realism. It’s a parable built smartly around a situation that serves as a microcosm for the common experiences of young women everywhere.
The miners who frequent this bar seem nice enough, if a little wild. They drink to excess. The bar owner (Hugo Weaving) has an issue with boundaries. He busts in on Hanna and Liv in the shower to turn off the faucets, citing a drought. Still, he seems mostly harmless, as does the handsome fella (Toby Wallace) who develops a crush on Hanna and takes the ladies to a creek to swim. Even on a good day, however, violence seems inevitable. Green and her co-writer Oscar Redding find tension in the plain reality of this situation: these young women are relying on the decency of a crowd of hard-drinking men who are starved for female affection. It’s hard to believe it will end well.
Even with this underlying tension, “The Royal Hotel” is a pleasurable experience due to its direct storytelling style. This is a film with no frills. Green never opts for sex or violence to titillate. She doesn’t use an overbearing score or jump scares to ratchet up the tension. In fact, it takes so long for the confrontation to arrive you might find yourself wondering if you’ve got the right movie. In doing this, Green creates a new sort of thriller where the terror is a constant thrum rather than a sudden burst. Call it a “hangout thriller.” Even as Hanna and Liv are enjoying their adventure — several of their male admirers do seem like decent fellas — we know we cannot get too comfortable. Green places us in the minds of her women, who must examine every smile, joke, and flirtation for the hint of violence underneath.
The film never underlines its message. There are no monologues about feminism. Instead, it falls upon the cast to convey its meaning, and everyone is up to the task. The men expertly tread the line between protector and aggressor, while Garner modulates her performance to track her character’s increasing sense of danger. She plays it cool when faced with a series of micro-aggressions; several customers tell her to “smile more”. As the threats increase, she becomes an expert at risk assessment, constantly scanning her surroundings for allies, enemies, weapons, and exits. Hanna emerges as the protector of Liv and of herself, and, with Garner’s nuanced performance, it’s a portrait of heroism that feels fully human.
Slotting in between summer blockbuster season and the awards circuit, “The Royal Hotel” may seem a slight film, without any pretensions or delusions of grandeur. We need more like it. Over her brief filmography, Green seems to be willing to sacrifice larger budgets and major movie stars for the freedom to tell her story according to her own vision. It pays off marvelously in “The Royal Hotel.”