The Royal Hotel, starring Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick and Hugo Weaving is provocative and entertaining, even if the end rings false.
REVIEW: Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel is exceptional for about ninety percent of its running time. Beautifully shot at an abandoned bar in Yatina, South Australia, a town that consists of only twenty-nine people, the movie is a thoroughly compelling look at the culture of booze, brawling, and misogyny in remote Australia and what happens when two regular, North American girls are dropped right in the middle of it. But, the finale gets a little too close to straight-ahead thriller territory, ending what had up to then been a compelling drama about menace and the constant threat of violence on a somewhat false note. It starts like Wake in Fright but ends like Straw Dogs, and the switch-up doesn’t work.
That said, it’s still a thoroughly compelling watch based on a documentary called Hotel Coolgardie. As in the documentary, the film follows two regular young women who wind up way out of their element when they accept a work-stay assignment due to running low on the funds they need to finance their trip. A bar populated by roughnecks in remote Australia already doesn’t sound like the best place for two North American girls. Still, the movie presents them as open-minded enough that you buy them not running back to the city after the first night.
Of the two, Julia Garner’s Hanna is the more responsible one, somewhat resenting that they’re stuck working in this dingy pub, while Jessica Henwick’s Liv is more go-with-the-flow. Their boss, a bedraggled Hugo Weaving as the permanently soused Billy, greets them by referring to them by the c-word, but they let it go because, as Liv says, “it doesn’t mean what you think it means here, it’s a cultural thing.” While they’re immediately bombarded with harassment, the silver lining is that the pub is quiet most nights, and two of the regular attendees don’t seem too bad. Toby Wallace’s Matty is a womanizer but charming in his way, while the hulking Teeth (James Frecheville) is protective. And, even if the patrons are rowdy, they at least keep their hands to themselves and just seem interested in having a drunken good time.
Of course, things go downhill fast with one of the pub’s attendees, Daniel Henshaw’s Dolly, a bullying sociopath. While The Royal Hotel isn’t a violent movie, the threat hangs over virtually every scene in the pub. Both Garner and Henwick’s characters feel totally out of their element. If I have a single complaint about the first part of the movie, I didn’t totally buy that Hanna would be talked into working at a bar, given that she’s presented as the abused child of an alcoholic mother.
The performances are terrific, with this marking Julia Garner’s second film with director Kitty Green, following The Assistant. The Royal Hotel feels more commercial and could connect with audiences, even if the movie’s final scene rings a little false, given how the two heroines have acted for most of the running time. Garner is terrific here, with Hanna easy to relate to, and Henwick is just as good as the more easygoing Liv, who just wants to have an adventure but gets a lot more than she bargained for.
As for the rowdy Aussies, while the movie certainly isn’t flattering in its depiction of the ultra-macho side of the culture (as well as continued racism toward Aboriginals), the fellas are all given some redeeming features. Toby Wallace’s Matty is awful in many ways but also charming. At the same time, Frecheville’s Teeth is shown to be somewhat brain-damaged (with a livid scar on his head) and essentially well-meaning, even if he views them more as ladies needing rescuing than people with agency. Hugo Weaving’s Billy is mostly a drunken lout. Still, you also get a sense that he wasn’t always that way, with him having a compelling side story involving his Aboriginal wife (a terrific Ursula Yovich), who you get the sense he really loves, even if she’s just about had it with what a loser he’s become. Of them all, the only one that’s truly irredeemable is Henshaw’s Dolly, who lacks Teeth’s (flawed) morality and Matty’s charm.
While the very end of the film (literally only the last ten minutes or so) is the only part that rubbed me the wrong way, it did somewhat sour a movie that, up to that point, was really terrific. Even still, The Royal Hotel was an excellent first movie for me to see at this year’s TIFF, and when Neon puts it out later this fall, you can bet it’ll provoke some conversation.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/the-royal-hotel-tiff-review/