Each year, a plethora of young adventurous souls seek new affordable, culturally immersive ways to experience the world. Some volunteer while others do work stays – work in exchange for food and housing. I, myself, have taken a handful of jobs in various countries, often doing farm work as a trade for a few warm meals a day and a bed to sleep on. Despite how universal this experience is for many young people, accurate depictions of backpackers and “workawayers” in film or television are few and far between, not to mention acknowledgment of how these travel options are usually more dangerous for women. This is part of what makes Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel a refreshing look at the female traveling experience, made complete with little cell service and loads of wanderlust.
Based on the true events of the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie by Pete Gleeson, The Royal Hotel follows two thirty-something Americans Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) who find themselves going broke while on a backpacking trip across Australia. To make some cash and continue their adventure, they pick up a temporary live-in job at a rundown bar of a pub called “The Royal Hotel” in a remote outback mining town. The handful of locals are mostly comprised of rowdy miners – nearly all men, with mouths as filthy as their work boots. The bar owner Billy (Hugo Weaving), who’s also a habitual drunk, shows the girls the ropes of running the chaotic pub in the evenings and promises the two pay at the end of every week as well as a dilapidated bedroom upstairs for them to share.
Writer-director Kitty Green and co-writer Oscar Redding place our characters in what can be described as a commonplace horror story. Their script is razor-sharp and filled with tension, immersing us in the girls’ unnerving situation as it gets worse and worse. Hanna and Liv are ultimately forced to familiarize themselves with some of the regulars at the bar including Matty (Toby Wallace), Teeth (James Frecheville), and Dolly (Daniel Henshall). The banter, made up of outright inappropriate flirting and innuendos, starts as nothing out of the unfortunate ordinary, but soon all of the male attention combined turns into something more threatening.
Dolly has a menacing aura that raises a multitude of red flags for Hanna in particular. Due to her apprehension towards him, we see Hanna lodging the flimsy door to their room shut with a chair and sitting watch on her friend’s bed throughout the night. Then later, after a rather rowdy night of drinking, an intoxicated Liv is coerced by a group of men into a truck. It’s only thanks to Hanna’s unleashed desperation that this terrifying act is brought to an end. With moments like these, director Kitty Green showcases the common and debilitating fear women experience at the hands of men, as well as the unbreakable bond between women when it comes to keeping each other safe from abuse and harassment.
Julia Garner (Ozark) and Jessica Henwick (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story) are nothing less than extraordinary on screen together. Their portrayal of two close-knit best friends enduring a dilemma where they need to watch out for one another as danger lurks at every corner is moving and ultra-realistic. The male performances are equally superb, as they all do an excellent job at showcasing eerie levels of subtlety in their roles – the threats they represent are not cartoonish “bad guys” with eye patches or big white vans. Instead, the men in The Royal Hotel play as quiet threats, seemingly kind and fun at times yet able to mutter a phrase under their breath that sends chills down your spine in an instant.
Ursula Yovich is a standout as Carol, a manager of sorts for The Royal Hotel pub and the only other female present. She plays an important role as the one who’s had to put up with the disrespect and mayhem at the bar the longest. Although a powerful female figure, Carol is the first to wash her hands of the situation and soon quits. In doing this, Carol presents the notion that sometimes the strongest thing a person can do is swallow their pride and leave. But, more importantly, she proves to our protagonists that this is more than okay to do so in these cruel scenarios.
The Royal Hotel is shot gorgeously by cinematographer Michael Latham with tight editing from Kasra Rassoulzadegan to match. The barren beauty of the Australian outback is showcased in all of its glory. From natural springs hidden away in the bush to the quirky yet majestic wildlife surrounding them, the landscapes on display are a sight for sore eyes. Even the titular pub – a dilapidated building, paint peeling, splintered wood and all – is framed on screen in such a fascinating way that it becomes a character in itself.
During the daytime, the Royal Hotel pub appears to be an oasis – a literal watering hole escape for the weary and thirsty, out of the sun. But in the evening, the building turns into an entirely different creature with light peeking out of its many cracks and lopsided windows. The pub looms in the dark, hiding more than a few dark secrets and painful memories inside its narrow walls and stained floors. The pristine technicalities of The Royal Hotal build a palpable atmosphere of uneasiness, no less thanks to Kitty Green’s keen direction with levels of tension and suspense akin to that of her exceptional 2019 narrative feature debut The Assistant, which also stars Julia Garner.
Although her work offers an authentic, harsh portrayal of day-to-day life, Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel often comes across as more of a true horror film. If you had to put a genre label on this movie, psychological thriller would be more widely accepted. However, its hard-hitting feminist lens reaches far beyond these labels. Green puts the viewer in the shoes of her characters, forcing you to see the bigger picture from their point of view – feeling all of their fear and even joy. Her direction is a conduit for empathy and under lesser hands, this story wouldn’t linger in the back of your mind as long as it does after the credits roll.
Additionally, the film displays the highs and hilarity that can come from being a broke backpacker abroad, sleeping on floors, hitchhiking, and making friends across the globe. It exhibits the realistic ups and downs of such a lifestyle and is sure to resonate with anyone who’s either backpacked abroad or even just found themselves in a sketchy Motel 6 with little cash to their name.