Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Neon
With her sophomore narrative feature The Royal Hotel director Kitty Green establishes herself as a connoisseur of contemporary female dread, unfurling a tightly coiled cobra of misogynistic threat into what gradually becomes one of the most harrowing, intense films of the year thus far.
Even if the slippery moral is undercut by the bluntness of the film’s ending, The Royal Hotel is well worth your time.
The premise could almost be the start of a comedy: two skint American backpackers accept a job tending the titular bar deep in the Aussie outback. The Royal Hotel serves a mining town, though to their dismay ‘town’ here means a series of corrugated metal shacks and little else. The nearest inklings of civilisation are a six-hour drive away.
Liv (Jessica Henwick) takes to it quickly enough – after all, she’s the one in need of the cash. But Hanna (Julia Garner of Ozark fame) has reservations. Gruff owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) is a drunk, and his marriage to cook Carol (Ursula Yovich) is strained. And every night the men come, leaning on the bar like dogs chasing scraps and vying with escalating intensity for Liv and Hanna’s attention.
Watching The Royal Hotel is akin to watching a cruise missile head inexorably towards its target. You know, with every fibre of your being, that this isn’t a film that was ever going to end well.
But whereas Green’s 2019 breakout workplace-harassment-thriller The Assistant was about the oppressive normalcy of misogyny, The Royal Hotel instead focuses on the ways in which such attitudes are not only enforced but downright celebrated.
The mining town is the patriarchy made manifest, a hotbed of sexual desperation and chauvinist posturing. Billy is a drunk, but he rules the bar with an iron fist. When he’s hospitalised – hours away – you feel your stomach lurch with Liv and Hanna. It’s just them.
That’s not to say Hanna and Liv are entirely hapless. Garner is the image of hardened poise, and what’s so refreshing about the film is the way Green and Oscar Redding’s script firmly refuses to pigeonhole her into being a ‘victim’. There’s no doubting that Hanna is completely out of her depth, but the situation lights a fire of grim and determined pragmatism within her.
She isn’t not going to make it out of this, and she’s dragging Liv with her. She doesn’t even entertain the notion of the inevitable occurring. You see it in Garner’s eyes. It’s a performance of poised, quiet ferocity.
When that missile finally meets its target the film has an atmosphere of tenterhook suspense. But it never quite explodes in the way you expect it to, largely because Green firmly refuses to pass judgement on either the girls’ naivety or the men’s actions (it’s made very clear that Hana and Liv’s predecessors loved their time there.)
A stressful denouement is resolved by convenience, and the explicitly feminist nature of it undercuts the razor-sharp subtlety of the film up to that point. But perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps it really is that simple: the world is far more flammable than it appears. Let ‘em rip.
The Royal Hotel – official trailer
LFF screenings begin at MAC on 4 October and run until 15 October, with tickets for all films and events on the programme now on sale. For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk
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