Review: Tension and Gendered Power Dynamics Permeate Kitty Green’s Australian Outback Drama The Royal Hotel

Inspired by Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary about two Finnish backpackers, Hotel Coolgardie, the latest from director/co-writer Kitty Green (The Assistant), The Royal Hotel, concerns a pair of Canadian best friends who are desperate for cash while backpacking through Australia and take jobs as bartenders at a pub in a remote Australian mining town. Julia Garner plays the more straight-laced Hanna, while Jessica Henwick plays the more adventurous and reckless Liv. The two of them are met by bar owner Billy (an almost unrecognizable Hugo Weaving) and his partner Carol (Ursala Yovich), who mostly keep the girls from getting harassed regularly by the clientele, who take drinking and drinking culture to an entirely different level. We meet up with a host of locals, including Matty (Toby Wallace), who seems the least threatening of the bunch; Teeth (James Frecheville), something of a protector; and Dolly (Daniel Henshall), who gives off creep vibes from the second he shows up on screen.

Co-written with Oscar Redding, the film is something akin to a real-life horror movie, with these two women (especially Hanna) living in abject fear for most of the movie. Liv is a little more relaxed around so much debauchery, and Billy does his best to keep order while the women serve drinks, but when Billy falls off the wagon once again, his usefulness to them vanishes. A type of low-level tension exists for the entire film, and it eats away at the sanity of the women and the audience. With The Assistant (in which Garner starred), Green brilliantly found a way to tell the Harvey Weinstein story without relying on details or even names and faces. But in The Royal Hotel, she moves away from a very specific narrative to something less focused but no less awful in the lives of these two women.

Garner is a known-quantity brilliant actress (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Ozark, Inventing Anna) but Henwick is a relatively new face whose depth and range as an actor we’re still discovering, and it’s been exciting to see her shine in works like Glass Onion and franchise work in the Marvel universe, Star Wars, and the most recent Matrix movie. She starts out The Royal Hotel fairly unformed, but quickly shows her colors as a woman willing to take a risk under the worst circumstances. Their friendship is tested as the situation they find themselves in grows rapidly out of control. The film also addresses the male/female power dynamic, the awesome fragility of the male ego, and how everything seems worse in the Outback of Australia. This movie made me wildly uncomfortable, and that’s exactly Green’s goal, I believe. It’s not quite the film The Assistant was, but I still found it powerfully unnerving, with riveting performances from everyone involved.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.