wed 17/07/2024

The Royal Hotel review - sexual malice in Australia | reviews, news & interviews

The Royal Hotel review - sexual malice in Australia

The Royal Hotel review - sexual malice in Australia

Bartending in an Outback pub becomes a terrifying ordeal for two backpackers

Lambs to the slaughter: Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) in 'The Royal Hotel'

The jitters-inducing first feature directed on home soil by the Australian filmmaker Kitty Green is named after The Royal Hotel, the only pub in an Outback mining community removed from civilised society. To suggest all the blokes who drink there are potential rapists would be wrong: only 95 per cent of them are.

This is bad news for the vulnerable Canadian backpackers Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), who have run out of money in Sydney and taken temp jobs as the Royal’s bartenders. They've bused out on a wing and a prayer to the blasted brown terrain where it stands (a building as foreboding as The Power of the Dog's ranch house), little heeding the employment agent's warning they should expect "a little male attention".

Though physically threatening vibes aren’t forthcoming from the pub's alcoholic proprietor Billy (a convincingly "ocker" Hugo Weaving) or a stout grizzled barfly, these men, too, are unredeemed sexists. Billy accuses Liv of thinking she's "a smart c__t" when she mentions she speaks several languages; the barfly totes a cigarette lighter decorated with a porny image of a voluptuous model.

Mercifully, the friendly sixtysomething who celebrates his wedding anniversary with his wife at the pub one quiet night is no nuisance. Hanna and Liv just have to serve the slavering wolves who pour in at the weekends and lewdly proposition and harangue them with misogynistic jokes – all in good fun, they should understand, for what is verbal rape after all? (Pictured above: Toby Wallace, Hugo Weaving, Jessica Henwick)

If enforced sexual abstinence fuels the miners' obnoxious behaviour, the way Green calibrates their interactions with Hanna and Liv through words and body language suggests that, for the majority, wielding the power to humiliate them is stronger than the desire to sleep with them. One raddled punter sits at the bar impotently telling sleazy gags he never finishes.

The self-evidently twisted Dolly (Daniel Henshall), who drinks apart from his peers, strafes Hanna with a venomous gaze. It’s Dolly who ominously gives a parting lift to Hanna and Liv’s predecessors behind the bar, a pair of English women who possibly entertained the drinkers too brazenly for their own good.

Hanna, the main character, begins to assert herself. She and easygoing Liv adapt to their predicament and look like riding it out. Hanna gets close to Matty (Pistol's Toby Wallace), a puppy dog with a college degree who might be sweeter than his crude introductory wordplay indicates. He drives the women to a watering hole for a swim and a sunbathe; they have a great day until he puts the moves on Hanna. Liv cosies up to Teeth (James Frecheville), a dour six-footer who visits his kids on weekends but, serious and couth, is good for a holiday fling. Perhaps. 

Green's direction is taut. Creepy signs noticed by Hanna alone (Liv tends to drink too much and pass out) reveal that a storm is coming, in the words of the pub’s gruff but good-natured cook Carol (Ursula Yovich, pictured left with Hugo Weaving), Billy's long-suffering spouse. 

As hardworking indigenous Australians, Carol and Tommy, the Royal's affable delivery man, who is owed thousands of dollars by Billy, tacitly provide the film’s sociohistorical conscience in the face of white rapaciousness. Baykali Ganambarr, who plays Tommy, was the Aboriginal tracker who befriends the raped, grieving Irish mother in The Nightingale (2018), Jennifer Kent's gruelling action drama set in 1825 Van Diemen's Land. He and Yovich make their limited parts count in The Royal Hotel.

Inspired by Pete Gleeson’s documentary Hotel Coolgardie (2016), about the ordeal of two penniless Finnish female backpackers who worked in an Outback pub in Western Australia, The Royal Hotel was co-written by Green and Oscar Redding. Green’s narrative debut The Assistant (2019) starred the fragile-seeming Garner as Jane, an office helper employed by a bullying film producer modelled on Harvey Weinstein. As Jane anxiously performs her menial duties, she realizes that attractive young women who visit the company – a new assistant, an aspiring actress – have been summoned under false pretences. 

What makes The Assistant more harrowing than more confrontational #MeToo movies is its focus on Jane during the course of her working day. If not harassed herself, she shares, as a woman subjected to an abuse-enabling culture, in the victims’ degradation. The Royal Hotel takes the same tack, concentrating on Hanna's cautious responses to extreme boorishness she has no means of stemming.

The long-simmering crisis comes after Billy is injured in a drunken fall and Carol drives him off to hospital with no intention of returning. When Hanna, her dread mounting, tells Liv she’s scared and wants to leave, it's because there's no just authority she can appeal to.

By continuing to party too hard, Liv virtually abandons her friend. Soon all hell breaks loose, their survival dependent on whether Hanna can rescue Liv and Liv can rally to Hanna’s side. (Pictured above: Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick)

To Green’s credit, The Royal Hotel never evolves into a full-blooded revenge thriller or horror film, its climax no more than a necessary purging. Bolstered by Garner and Henwick’s astute portrayals of women with different sensibilities, Green again proves a sharp storyteller who doesn’t overburden the screen with symbols. The poisonous phallic one that does slither in pointedly ends up as debris under Hanna’s feet.

They have to serve the slavering wolves who lewdly proposition and harangue them with misogynistic jokes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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