‘Adapt to survive’ is a fitting mantra for the latest tense drama from The Assistant writer-director Kitty Green. This time, she places the star of her #MeToo-styled 2019 film, actor Julia Garner, in the heart of the Australian Outback to serve drinks to booze-addled patrons of a dysfunctional pub.

Inspired by fascinating 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, The Royal Hotel takes a compelling look at ingrained toxic masculinity and the dominance of alcohol culture, as well as sobering isolation through the eyes of two backpacking female foreigners. An uneasy, maddening decline into the inevitable, Green’s film explores the effects of the unhealthy environment on two independent young women and the choices they must make for their well-being.

‘Gen Z’ Americans Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick of Glass Onion fame) reluctantly take live-in bartending jobs fund the rest of their Australian trip after finances run out. Dropped off at the rundown Royal Hotel in a remote Outback mining town, the friends initially see their rut of situation as part of a greater adventure. But their optimism evaporates as things rapidly deteriorate when alcoholic owner Billy (an exceptional Hugo Weaving) loses the upper hand with his patrons, often resorting to violence, and long-suffering partner Carol (Ursula Yovich) can no longer save Billy and the boozer. As the unwanted intentions of the local men grows, the girls soon find themselves expected to do more than just serve drinks, putting their relationship to the test.

The slow-burn drama not only allows for the malaise to manifest, but also a creeping and numbing claustrophobia – the latter beautifully juxtaposed with cinematographer Michael Latham’s wide-open, yellow-hued Outback vistas as the girls (and viewer) get to escape for a day with ‘charming’ local Matty (Toby Wallace) for a refreshing swim in a creek, only to return like a boomerang to the parched surroundings of the crumbling, dusty establishment. Ironically, the friends may find its local swimming pool dried out and barren, but the booze carries on flowing at the bar, as it affects every colourful character in their own quirky way.

Green almost avoids stereotyping her patrons, but the universal ugliness of the effects of an challenged dominant patriarchy, lack of social mobility and ingrained racism against the Indigenous people in the story simply does not allow for anything else to transpire. That said, Green embraces this stark reality by attempting to give each key character the some screen time to demonstrate their awkward social skills towards the new bar staff. The more fascinating exchanges are often those between the local women and Hanna and Liv, as they try to survive their lot in differing ways.

Garner is excellent once more as the guarded Hanna who keeps carefree Liv in line and notices the danger signs of unhinged Dolly (Daniel Henshall) and his hold over the other men. Her ability to act strong, tight-lipped and poker-faced in the wake of her character’s great peril while portraying a furnace of emotions burning inside her never ceases to impress. This boils over in an end scene that feels straight out of a Tarantino/Rodriguez action movie in design – perhaps a little out of place for such a setting, however warranted the girls’ actions might be.

The Royal Hotel slowly and uncompromisingly unravels as female survival tactics kick in and are tested to the limit, resulting in a solid and rather absorbing follow-up feature for Green.

The Royal Hotel
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Lisa Giles-Keddie
Fierce film reviewer and former BFI staffer, Lisa is partial to any Jack Nicholson flick. She also masquerades as a broadcast journalist, waiting for the day she can use her Criminology & Criminal Justice-trained mind like a female Cracker.
the-royal-hotel-reviewAn uneasy, maddening decline into the inevitable, The Royal Hotel slowly and uncompromisingly unravels as female survival tactics kick in and are tested to the limit, resulting in a solid and rather absorbing follow-up feature for Green.