Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie came and went on the festival circuit, but it made a strong impression on those who caught it. Following two young Finnish tourists who get a work placement at a bar in a middle-of-nowhere Australian mining town, it captured harrowing footage of subjects putting up with a bombardment of sexist remarks and behaviors from the (largely male) regulars and their manager. What made Gleeson’s film so effective was how irrelevant the camera was; the town’s toxic, misogynist culture was so normalized that no one batted an eye at what they put the two women through.
Kitty Green saw Hotel Coolgardie while on a festival jury, and the film impacted her so much she’s now adapted it into The Royal Hotel, a tense yet uneven thriller that sensationalizes its source material in almost all of the right places. In Green’s take, American tourists Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) travel to Australia to escape their lives back home, and we first see them partying it up on a boat in Sydney. Their partying days get cut short when they run out of money, which prompts Liv to find a temporary job for both of them at a bar hundreds of miles away in a barren mining town. Hanna dreads the idea of it; Liv goes with the flow. (Liv’s only question about the job: “Will there be kangaroos?”)
And with that they arrive at the Royal Hotel, a rundown pub owned by middle-aged alcoholic Billy (Hugo Weaving) and his wife Carol (Ursula Yovich). Though their first night on the job gets so hellish that Hanna wants to walk away, Liv convinces her to try it for a few weeks until they get enough money to resume vacationing. Green, choosing to stick to Hanna’s perspective, begins ramping up tension as the men who frequent the bar try to woo them, the hot-tempered Dolly (Daniel Henshall) getting under Hanna’s skin the most.
Like with Green’s previous film The Assistant, The Royal Hotel benefits from the strength of her direction and ensemble, reuniting with Garner to harness another great, expressive performance. A different director might have leaned into the horror elements more; Green opts to focus on the potential for violence so that Hanna’s concerns might be easily rationalized or explained away. And that’s exactly what Liv does whenever Hanna becomes scared. The men’s boorish, aggressive behavior never crosses the line into physical harm––it’s the ambiguous space, where an unstable status quo allows people to ignore the possibility of things going south, that Green seizes upon to keep The Royal Hotel grounded while pushing levels of discomfort as far as she can take them.
Green also avoids being reductive in her portrayal of the supporting cast, with a keen awareness of the role culture and environment plays in developing how people behave. While Dolly is the most outright threatening figure, other men––e.g. hardened miner Teeth (James Frecheville) or the younger Matty (Toby Wallace)––show a kinder side and try to befriend Hanna and Liv. But Green also highlights the unspoken expectation they have for being “nice guys,” how their possessiveness comes out whenever someone else might get Hanna and Liv’s attention. Much like the two leads drop in on the town with little awareness of its dynamics or history, The Royal Hotel doesn’t provide much background or context to its characters, which gives the film an unpredictability that feeds into its slow-boiling tension.
It’s unfortunate that The Royal Hotel’s screenplay––written by Green and Oscar Redding––tends to needlessly reinforce information or have characters state themes that the directing does a fine job saying. While Garner is excellent at balancing Hanna’s fight-or-flight instincts, the script reduces Liv to a foil for Hanna as the situation at the bar continues to escalate (if Henwick’s performance might offset the schematic writing, she can only do so much). And the final minutes, where Green goes for a more definitive, provocative ending than the documentary, is a bit of wish-fulfillment that’s unearned. It’s easy to understand the logic behind it, but The Royal Hotel functions much better when it restrains than lets loose.
The Royal Hotel screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and opens on October 6.