In 2019, Australian documentary filmmaker Kitty Green made her first narrative movie, a piercing almost cinéma vérité-style movie focused on an office assistant in a Tribeca film company run by a not-so-thinly disguised Harvey Weinstein. The male culture there and the sexual acts of the boss made it almost a modern horror story at the height of the #MeToo movement. For Green’s second narrative film she has changed up the filmmaking style considerably, but with The Royal Hotel which premiered last week at Telluride and now premieres tonight at the Toronto Film Festival, she is taking an even deeper look at the dark side of men as seen through the female gaze in a broken down hotel bar in a desolate part of the Australian Outback.
Based on Pete Gleeson’s 2017 documentary about two Scandinavian girls stuck at the Hotel Coolgardie, the actual set-up here would make it ideal for a horror movie, but the horrors Green is interested in showing are not in that genre. Two American women are backpacking through Australia when they run out of money. The more adventurous and gregarious one, Liv (Jessica Henwick) convinces Hanna (Julia Garner) to take temporary jobs at the bar of The Royal Hotel, a dusty fading old place seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Billy (Hugo Weaving) has a habit of bringing in young girls to work there, sort of an added attraction for the drunken obnoxious blue collar class of males who are the main customers. In fact a couple of British girls are seen getting into their car to leave as Hanna and Liv have just arrived. “Just say ‘yes’!” one of them yells for advice. That is ominous enough, but they will soon find this is no vacation paradise due to the boorish behavior of the locals. Men have never looked so bad, yet Green does not try to paint the whole male sex as monsters.
In fact there is a seemingly nice guy named Matty (Toby Wallace, who is also pretty good in another TIFF movie premiering called Finestkind) who accompanies them to a swim to the nearby lake and seems to like Hanna, although it gets a bit sour when he goes too far after drinking too much, only to sleep in the car and later apologize the next day. Another guy, Teeth (James Frecheville) is a bit surly but okay, compared to a bar regular named Dolly (Daniel Henshall), a real bully and miserable dude who is menacing throughout like the bad guy in a Western. Hanna’s experience with him one night in the bar is frightening enough to make her go to Liv and suggest they leave. Liv just plays it all down, aware this is a place where people drink too much, wanting to have her own level of fun on this adventure working at the Royal, and herself getting a bit too drunk one night for Hanna’s comfort.
As for Billy he also is an alcoholic (apparently there is nothing else to do in this place) and even takes money for himself from the girls’ tip jar. Nice guy. His girlfriend Carol (a fine Ursula Yovich) also works at the bar, is understanding towards Billy but also can be driven to the point where she has had enough of this place. When it gets out of hand, Hanna takes matters – and an axe – into her own hands as Green ratchets up the drama.
Garner, who starred in the title role of Green’s The Assistant, is excellent here as Hanna, a young woman never really into the idea of working at this place but trying to put the best face on what is left of their vacation. British actress Henwick is perfect as the more free wheeling best friend who maybe should have listened to her BFF a little sooner. Australian acting legend Weaving is superb as Billy, who uses vile terms for women, a complete misogynist who perhaps knows his place is a dive but turns the other way when the paying customers get a bit rowdy.
The atmosphere created by production designer Leah Popple and cinematographer Michael Latham is pitch perfect, a joint tourists should avoid at all costs to be sure. Green really demonstrates a sharp filmmaking talent, confidently handling the escalating drama, and especially the horrors of too much alcohol, with expert skill even if the action hits a crescendo that takes it into different territory at the end. The final shot pays it off nicely though. Contrasting this to the quiet, slow burning style of The Assistant is impressive and makes me want to see what else she has up her sleeve. There is no doubt she is becoming an important feminist voice in the movie business, at least on the basis of these two most recent films. It is nice that this isn’t a one-sided “I hate all men” diatribe, but also tries to show, at least a bit, that some guys can be human despite their worst moments.
Producers are Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Liz Watts, and Kath Shelper.
Title: The Hotel Royal
Festival: Toronto Film Festival
Release Date: October 6, 2023
Director/Screenplay: Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick , Hugo Weaving, Toby Wallace, James Frecheville, Daniel Henshall, Ursula Yovich
Running Time: 1 hour and 31 minutes