The Royal Hotel: a backpacking adventure turns toxic in Kitty Green’s quiet thriller

A queasy, swampy atmosphere pervades Kitty Green's follow-up to The Assistant as the threat of violence builds for two American backpackers working in a remote Australian pub.

11 October 2023

By Catherine Wheatley

The Royal Hotel (2023)
Sight and Sound

Modelled on the reports of events at the Weinstein company during the early 2000s, Kitty Green’s debut feature The Assistant (2019) followed a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a recently appointed junior assistant at a production company. Verbally abused by her boss and jeered at by her colleagues, Jane was a helpless witness to the procession of young women filing in and out of her boss’s office, the door clicking shut behind them. As if to emphasise a connection between green-lighting and gaslighting, the film was punctuated with accents of emerald, celadon and avocado. Even the semen-stained casting couch was a sludgy shade of olive.

The Royal Hotel is similarly bathed in shades of green, from the neon lights that circle the exterior of the eponymous pub to the baize of the pool table inside. There are sweating Kelly green tinnies of lager; pale, chartreuse glasses of “Sav Blanc”. The atmosphere is swampy, bilious. Along the back of the bar are rows of khaki snakes, brined and jarred: a rather on-the-nose phallic symbol, it seems, for the hyper masculine miners who make up most of the patrons.

Here, Garner is Hanna, a young, middle-class American backpacker – Jane-gone-on-holiday, if you will. When we meet her, she’s relaxing into the tourist lifestyle, carelessly snogging a stranger (The Worst Person in The World’s Herbert Nordrum) during a booze cruise of Sydney Harbour. But when Hanna’s friend and travelling companion Liv runs out of cash, the two are forced to take the only work available, tending bar in a remote mining community, where Hanna is unsettled by the leering clientele and the sign outside reading “fresh meat” above a pair of scribbled breasts. Liv tuts, dismisses these men are no different from the frat bros back home in the US. Judging by the look on Hanna’s face, it’s not quite the reassurance Liv thinks it is. It’s not long before the film bears out her anxieties.

Unfolding as a quiet thriller, The Royal Hotel will no doubt invite comparisons with contemporary releases such as Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex (2023) and Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person (2023), films about power and coercion, and that dreadful grey area that isn’t quite – but really is – rape. It’s at its best when examining what women are willing to put up with: for the sake of politeness, for the sake of their livelihood and for the sake of their lives (and in Hanna’s case, perhaps, for the sake of her friendship). Watching Hanna mollify a mean drunk, I was reminded of Tabitha Lasley’s observation in her 2021 memoir ‘Sea State’, that girls “are taught to respond to the subtlest social cues, to beat a retreat at the first sign of a furrowed brow or crossed arms; boys to develop a benign tone-deafness to the very same signals.”

Like The Assistant, the film is based on fact (in this case the events detailed in the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie), although Green takes more liberties with her material here, leaning into the film’s generic aspects and making explicit what was implicit in the earlier work. The Royal Hotel is a less subtle work than The Assistant. Partly the difference is one of scale – the sheer numbers of men here are overwhelming – and a shift from social to physical power. The accumulation of beards and scars and veiny, tattooed forearms and steel-toed boots is a stark reminder that these men are bigger and stronger than Hanna and Liv: they can take what they want, they don’t have to ask for it. Partly it has to do with the peculiarity of those predominantly male environments such as rigs and mining towns that are perpetually on the verge of implosion (Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves springs to mind here). Hanna and Liv’s arrival into town is a match to powder keg.

The weaker men use alternative methods to stalk their prey: authority (Daniel Henshall’s snake-eyed Dolly), guilelessness (James Frecheville’s cloddish Teeth), charm (Toby Wallace’s baby-faced Matty). Still, Green makes clear that it’s all of a piece. Even Hanna’s ostensible knight-in-shining armour ultimately opts to side with the lads. To curmudgeonly bar owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) she’s a “smart cunt”, to the patrons she’s a “sour cunt”, but what the film makes brutally, hopelessly clear is that little matter however they qualify it, to these men – to all men, perhaps – Hanna will only ever be one thing. 

► The Royal Hotel is in the Official Competition at the 2023 London Film Festival; it is scheduled for release in UK cinemas on 3 November. 

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