Kitty Green’s #MeToo inspired movie The Assistant was largely slept on upon its release, partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic, yet it was one of 2020’s best. The way it captured the sinister undertones of workplace dynamics was uncomfortable by design, yet proved very insightful into certain aspects of male culture. Her newest film The Royal Hotel is similar in aim and execution. The discomforting nature of its delivery may divide certain audiences, but the observations it makes in regards to male behaviour is as powerful as it is maddening to those who recall similar experiences.
Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick play Canadian backpackers Hanna and Liv. They are on a trip to Australia, and find themselves short of money. To resolve this issue, they take jobs as bar staff in The Royal Hotel, a remote workplace in the Australian Outback. They are warned to expect some male attention from the job, but with limited options for obtaining money, they take the job anyway. However, the extent of the attention they receive leaves them disturbed and wondering just how much they can take.
Even beyond being helmed by the same filmmaker, The Royal Hotel could be seen as a companion piece to The Assistant. Where the latter examined the open secret of toxic workplace culture through the lens of misogyny, the former decries against the type of behaviour that many men would dismiss as pub banter or, as certain right-wing pundits may describe, “locker room talk”. The men who enter this pub all eye Hanna and Liv as though they are sacks of meat or prizes to be won. They objectify them at every turn, using the insidious excuse “it’s just a joke” whenever the tides seem to turn, despite the deafening absence of laughter from either woman.
Some of these men do it because of the insecurities they have in their own lives, such as their boss Billy (Hugo Weaving), who drinks away his father’s inheritance, while others do it for lust or just because they can. The emotional result is the same regardless. The discomfort of their actions radiate off the screen, made all the more harrowing by just how recognisable their antics are. This may be a specific setting in the Australian Outback, but the entitlement displayed by these men – be it Teeth’s (James Frecheville) pining after Liv, Matt’s (Toby Wallace) faux cool guy act or Dolly’s (Daniel Henshall) more overtly aggressive displays of power – are terrifyingly universal. Despite its Australian setting, this could easily be a pub in London or Glasgow or Paris or Chicago.
In the vast emptiness of the Outback is sold through aerial shots, highlighting how isolated the women are despite the claustrophobic interiors and low lighting of the bar they work in. Although the exterior scenery is portrayed with elements of beauty, namely through bright colours and the inviting promise of escapism through swimming in lakes, the wide shots used only emphasise that such escapisms are tiny drops in the gargantuan canvas of nothingness that create the Outback.
Garner and Henwick work magic on the screen, not just in creating believability and, sadly, relatability in their roles but in how they capture the nuances of their responses to this culture. While the story is perhaps more of a microscopic look at the culture as opposed to a story on how one changes the system, the script still makes the smart choice by having the two friends react differently to their environment, with Hanna growing less and less comfortable with each passing second, while Liv responds with denial about their circumstance, perhaps as her own form of coping mechanism. They are powerful turns that sell the very real traumatic effects that occur to people on the receiving end of this culture despite men’s cries of “we’re only having a laugh”. It oozes with an atmosphere of righteous anger through every frame.
Undoubtedly there will be those who will simply paint this film as anti-male and use that to dismiss it entirely. Those people are wilfully ignorant of the film’s aims, or simply want to bury their heads in the sand. Like The Assistant before it, The Royal Hotel is more about showing how recognisable the female experience is amongst those who fob off casual misogyny or aggression as a joke. It may lack the sinister subtleties that made The Assistant especially harrowing, but then again the antagonism of this picture is hardly veiled. This may perhaps make it too uncomfortable a watch to some, but, for this reviewer, it makes for a staunchly steadfast film fully prepared to call out the things it scrutinises. That it is every bit as well made and terrifically acted as The Assistant before it makes this yet another great feature from Kitty Green.
The Royal Hotel is in cinemas November 3rd
Director: Kitty Green
Writer: Kitty Green
Stars: Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Toby Wallace, Hugo Weaving
Runtime: 91 minutes