Director Kitty Green, renowned for her thought-provoking work in “The Assistant,” teams up once again with the exceptionally talented Julia Garner, this time transporting audiences to the heart of Australia in a bruising and immersive drama, “The Royal Hotel.” This narrative feature, inspired by the 2016 documentary “Hotel Coolgardie,” plunges viewers into the harsh realities of an isolated mining town, where fear and loathing lurk in every corner.
In contrast to the corporate world of Manhattan, Green’s latest venture unfolds in the Australian outback, specifically within the confines of a local hotel bar frequented by rugged, hard-drinking men. Julia Garner, who delivers an exceptional performance, reprises her role as the film’s protagonist, and her chemistry with the equally remarkable Jessica Henwick forms the backbone of the narrative. The duo’s portrayal of best friends embarking on a backpacking adventure that spirals into a nightmarish ordeal is nothing short of extraordinary.
Despite the film’s undeniable craftsmanship and outstanding performances, “The Royal Hotel” is an intense and relentless experience, favoring unrelenting tension over easy resolutions. For her second narrative feature, and her first to be set and filmed in her native Australia, Kitty Green takes inspiration from the documentary “Hotel Coolgardie,” which documented the experiences of two young Scandinavian women working in an isolated bar. Additionally, there’s a thematic connection to Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 psychological thriller “Wake in Fright,” which portrayed the dark side of Australian masculinity and alcohol culture. Green’s film, however, shifts the focus to the female perspective, with two compelling protagonists.
The film opens with a disorienting scene, expertly setting the tone for what lies ahead. We are thrust into a frenetic dance club, engulfed by deafening noise, only to discover that it’s located on a cruise ship in broad daylight. This cleverly crafted scene quickly establishes the film‘s loud and chaotic atmosphere. As American travelers Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Henwick) contemplate their dwindling finances, they reluctantly accept a work-and-travel opportunity in a remote Australian town. Their employer, the Royal Hotel, is an establishment laden with irony.
Once they arrive, Hanna is eager to leave, but Liv encourages her to give it a chance. What follows is a raucous and unpredictable journey as the two women adapt to their new roles behind the bar. The male-dominated clientele, primarily miners, ensures that chaos reigns supreme, especially on the farewell night of the departing British bartenders.
The film introduces several characters, ranging from initially obnoxious patrons to those with more nuanced shades of empathy. Some of the miners, initially painted as irredeemable, reveal surprising complexities as the narrative unfolds. The relationships that develop between Hanna, Liv, and these men add depth to the story. Green captures the harsh beauty of the setting, seamlessly blending South Australian landscapes with well-designed studio interiors.
“The Royal Hotel” explores the contrasting approaches of Hanna and Liv to their challenging surroundings. Liv embraces the chaos with a more carefree attitude, while Hanna’s discomfort grows. The film delves into the trauma of Hanna’s past, her experiences with an alcoholic mother, and how it shapes her interactions with the belligerent drunkards in the bar.
As tension mounts, fueled by the relentless drinking of bar owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) and the menacing presence of Dolly (Daniel Henshall), the film keeps viewers on edge. However, the climax, while tense, feels somewhat mechanical and may leave some yearning for a more cathartic resolution.
In the final scene, the film poignantly captures the stark contrast between the two female protagonists and the regular barfly, exemplifying what it means to make peace with their world. Yet, for Green’s bold and resilient travelers, peace remains an elusive dream.
In “The Royal Hotel,” Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick deliver gripping performances under Kitty Green’s direction, crafting a tense and immersive narrative that explores the depths of fear, resilience, and female camaraderie. While the film may not offer easy resolutions, it is a riveting journey into the heart of the Australian outback, where survival takes precedence over all else.