Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Hugo Weaving, Toby Wallace, Daniel Henshall, James Frecheville
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The Royal Hotel is basically Wake In Fright without the implied sodomy and Donald Pleasance. It’s also a highly compelling and truly thought-provoking work in its own right.
“He just called me the C word,” says Julia Garner’s American backpacker with quiet shock after Hugo Weaving’s pub owner casually drops the polarising word as a term of endearment. It’s a small moment, but it perfectly captures a big part of what the new film The Royal Hotel is about. This is a film about the rough, foul-mouthed, dirt-under-the-fingernails world of outback Australia, where the C word is, well, nothing. The Royal Hotel is also, however, about the very dark underbelly of that, and what may once have been termed Ockerism, but has now been refitted as toxic masculinity. This is a world where drinking to the point of vomiting and collapse is commonplace; where profanity qualifies more as punctuation than actual profanity; where racism is just, well, there; and where women are there to be ogled, teased, harassed and worse. The Royal Hotel is basically Wake In Fright without the implied sodomy and Donald Pleasance. It’s also a highly compelling and truly thought-provoking work in its own right.
Directed by feminist-minded agitator and highly skilled filmmaker of note Kitty Green (Ukraine Is Not A Brothel, The Assistant), and based upon Peter Gleeson’s 2016 doco Hotel Coolgardie, The Royal Hotel kicks off with American backpackers Hanna (Green reunites with her leading lady from The Assistant, Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick from Glass Onion and The Gray Man) partying hard on Sydney Harbour. Soon out of money and desperate, however, the pair take jobs at the only pub in a remote, isolated mining town in the middle of the outback, where they soon learn that pulling beers at a rural bloodhouse is no picnic. Their boss, Billy (Hugo Weaving), is a blustering, drunken, foul-mouthed mess, while the customers range from annoyingly knockabout (Toby Wallace’s Matty) and slightly peculiar (James Frecheville’s Teeth, who has more than a touch of Boo Radley about him) to the horribly menacing (Daniel Henshall’s Dolly). Though there is a little cheer in amongst the red dust and hard-cranked beer taps, Hanna and Liv slowly come to realise that they’ve walked voluntarily into a truly horrible world.
Despite the poster and key images promising a real sense of fear and threat, The Royal Hotel is steadfastly not a horror film; this is not Wolf Creek with a feminist twist. The film does, however, perfectly capture the feeling of intimidation and unease that a woman can feel when surrounded by aggressive males. As The Royal Hotel progresses, most of these men are revealed to be relatively harmless (though there are no real “good guys”, so to speak, as there were in the originating doco) and little more than uncouth, while some are genuine predators despite their initial appearance. There are also no “white knights” here either; that kind of shit doesn’t fly in films by Kitty Green.
Hanna and Liv navigate this world with a mix of suspicion and casual insouciance, keeping the men at arm’s length, but also succumbing to the pub’s boozy, bleary atmosphere. Julia Garner is terrific as the quiet, unsure and more introspective Hanna (what the pub’s patrons nickname her is as amusing as it is offensive), while Jessica Henwick is equally as impressive as the looser, more freewheeling and disturbingly compliant Liv. Their Aussie male counterparts, meanwhile, deliver masterclasses in flawed masculinity, with Hugo Weaving at his towering best as the boozy Billy, and Toby Wallace delivering a performance that never lets you know if his intentions are good-hearted or more sinister. Daniel Henshall (Snowtown) gets his bad guy on again brilliantly, with his cruelly taunting and bullying Dolly a stunning picture of true outback malevolence. James Frecheville is strangely touching as the excellently named Teeth, and Ursula Yovich owns all of her scenes as the pub’s plucky, no-nonsense indigenous cook, who also functions as sloppy, drunken Billy’s caretaker.
An ugly portrait of Australia’s often absurdly mythologised outback that will likely have the bosses at Tourism Australia suggesting tax audits for all of the major creative players, The Royal Hotel grips tight and doesn’t let go for the entirety of its cleverly economic running time. It’s a quietly powerful and impressive film…though probably one that we needed rather than wanted.