Australian filmmaker Kitty Green has made a name for herself teasing out the complex relationship of gender, labor and industry. She started in documentary filmmaking with “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” and “Casting JonBenet,” but her narrative debut “The Assistant,” starring Julia Garner, made a splash in a post-Harvey Weinstein film landscape. Following a young female assistant working for an unseen movie mogul, Green methodically unpacks the intricacies of this toxically sexist workplace, and the ways in which this young woman attempts to navigate and justify her presence in this world.
Her latest film, also starring Garner, takes on another industry known for its sexist hazards — the service industry — and she gives the material an Ozploitation twist. “The Royal Hotel” follows two Canadian girls, backpacking through Australia, as they take on a work and travel gig bartending at a scuzzy dive in the Outback to make some extra cash. Garner stars as the reserved Hanna; Jessica Henwick is her far more daring friend Liv, who eagerly agrees to the job without even consulting Hanna.
Green excels at configuring cinematic space to draw out the inherent peril of the setting, capturing the hyper-vigilant perspective of our heroine, Hanna, whose wariness is both founded in the very real threats that surround her, and in her past traumas, to which there are only vague allusions. What Green does so well is show us how Hanna’s guarded nature both empowers and endangers her, as well as present a variety of different options for women to navigate a space such as the Royal Hotel, the only bar in a desolate mining town filled with roughneck working men.
First, there’s the women that Hanna and Liv replace behind the bar, a pair of drunken British party girls who send off their last night with a beer-soaked bar top dance and late-night romp with the regulars. There’s the crude barfly Glenda (Barbara Lowing), perhaps a future premonition for the Brits. There’s Carol (Ursula Yovich), the Aboriginal woman who runs the bar with her partner Billy (Hugo Weaving), a tough, resilient gal who rules the kitchen with an iron fist, but still has to put up with the darkest depths of Billy’s alcoholic behavior.
Then there’s the difference between carefree Liv and the anxious Hanna. Liv gaslights and denies Hanna’s qualms with the place; Hanna tells her again and again she wants to leave, but Liv lightly steamrolls her complaints and finds her fun flirting with the guys at the bar, including the shy Teeth (James Frecheville) and the menacing Dolly (Daniel Henshall). As they watch the Brits, absolutely shattered, being carried out over a large man's shoulder on their last night, Liv laughs, “that’ll be us in a few weeks,” an ominous self-fulfilling prophecy.
Green keeps us locked into Hanna’s point of view, constructing conflict and danger out of glances and eye lines. She leads us down dangerous paths and then subverts expectations, like a trip to the swimming hole with the cute, young Matty (Toby Wallace). In the same way that she presents the different kinds of women in this space, she also presents the varying degrees of threat from the men: Matty is a flirtatious scamp who pushes the limits of Hanna’s boundaries, Teeth seems imposing but may be steady, Dolly is unpredictable in his violent outbursts, and Green situates him constantly in the background, looming like a predator, watching Hanna closely. But it's not like things were so different in Sydney, where the girls were still under gendered surveillance from men on booze cruises and in nightclubs. It's just far more heightened in this small town where they are vastly outnumbered.
The indignities the girls face range from the terrifying to the absurd — Billy exhorting them to smile more, a man asking, “where’s my rum and coke?” during a moment that explodes into real violence — but Green knows that it’s all these moments, all these players, and all these layers of compounded sexism and gendered notions of service labor that add up to creating this noxious social microcosm, one that she argues is beyond saving.
“The Royal Hotel” flirts with genre play but it never really delves into a true horror or thriller, instead simply borrowing the aesthetics and tropes for the larger social message that Green wants to impart. The ending proves to be a bit too facile, but there’s no denying that the combination of Garner and Green is a potent force, and “The Royal Hotel” is another stinging rebuke to the kinds of workplace misogyny we’ve all too easily normalized.
'THE ROYAL HOTEL'
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language throughout and sexual content/nudity)
Running time: 1:31
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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