The Plot: American backpackers Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) have chosen Australia to explore, given that it’s the farthest from home. They’re working while there too and the only thing available at short notice is a job running a bar in the Outback. They arrive in a remote mining town with a small population and the potential for a lot of male customers and attention. It doesn’t help that the owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) has a lax attitude towards banning unruly customers and also has an inability to pay staff. While Liv blends in with the locals, Hanna is less comfortable with this situation and its potential for violence…
The Verdict: There’s something unique about the Australian Outback that draws both domestic and foreign filmmakers to it like a moth to the flame. It’s the sense of wild remoteness, the wide and scenic vistas, the potential for everything out there to be dangerous and try to kill you… Melbourne-born writer-director Kitty Green has tapped into that – and more – for her latest film The Royal Hotel. It sees a pair of Americans – passing themselves off as Canadians – take up temporary residence in a remote Outback town and come into potential conflict with the locals. They obviously haven’t seen Wolf Creek or witnessed Crocodile Dundee’s raucous bar culture. At first, it seems like the audience is already shouting ‘get away already!’ when they arrive in this one-horse town but all is not what it seems.
The Royal Hotel is not quite the film that it sets itself up to be early on (not necessarily a bad thing). It would appear to be a thriller given the sense of uneasiness that is threaded through the story by Green. It sets up its very different protagonists (Liv is more open to Outback culture, Hanna less so) and then twists the screws to determine whether the antagonists are really that or just crude, rowdy but misunderstood locals. Green’s script has a basis in reality, inspired by the documentary Hotel Coolgardie in which two Finnish tourists worked in a similar situation. That makes The Royal Hotel a bit more interesting than your average thriller then. There’s a thought process going on here to suggest that this story isn’t necessarily an Australian one. It could be transplanted to two Australians working in a dusty Texan oil town too. As Green has said on the promotional trail, it’s about alcohol-fuelled aggression and behaviour that when left unchecked can spiral into something quite terrible. That’s a universal theme that can happen anywhere.
Green’s script is something of a slow-burner then and is played mostly in a lower register where violence is more suggested than acted out by its characters, foreign and local. That may disappoint some viewers looking for a more overt reaction – no Sam Peckinpah-style home invasions and death by well-placed mantrap here. Green concentrates more on the increasing contrast between Liv and Hanna, making it a tale of two friends drifting away from each other across different sides of the bar. Re-teaming with Julia Garner following The Assistant, Green finds further ways to eke uncomfortable looks out of her talented lead. Jessica Henwick provides strong support too, while Hugo Weaving does wonders with a thinly-written character with one trait – he’s an unapologetic drunk. The Royal Hotel may not exactly be promoting Outback tourism, but it’s honest enough to be fair about the amusement and dangers of cultural differences. It’s a little rough around the edges, but this place is a reasonable three-star stay worth checking into for 91 minutes.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Royal Hotel
Three star stay
The Royal Hotel (Australia / UK / 16 / 91 mins)
In short: Three star stay
Directed by Kitty Green.
Starring Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Hugo Weaving, Herbert Nordrum, Alex Malone.