The Royal Hotel review

Kitty Green’s exploration of toxic workplaces and #MeToo continues with The Royal Hotel

3.5 out of 5 stars

Kitty Green’s breakout film was the 2018 documentary Casting Jon Benet. While the story of Jon Benet Ramsay, the child beauty queen found dead in her parents’ basement, has been told many times, Green had an innovative approach. By breaking the fourth wall, building the casting process of Benet as part of the documentary’s intersection between femininity, labour and youth, she was able to illuminate something dark and deep about our obsession with Ramsay’s case over 25 years later.

Green followed her documentary with her first fiction, The Assistant, a rigorous and anxiety-inducing portrait of an assistant working in a Manhattan film office for an unseen figure akin to Harvey Weinstein. The film zeroed in on the minutia of routine as Jane (Julia Garner) makes photocopies, answers phone calls and endures passive and overt aggression. A startling and unromanticized portrait of the film industry and the rampant abuse that courses through it, The Assistant was a singular, visionary work that encapsulated the #MeToo movement better than any other film. 

With her latest, The Royal Hotel, Green reunites with Julia Garner and treads familiar themes of labour, femininity and power as two friends, desperate for cash flow and vacationing in Australia, take a job in a remote town populated almost exclusively by men. 

It’s impossible not to think of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright as the two young women roll into town. Everything is dusty and rung out; alcohol flows more freely than water, and frustrated, socially outcasted men yearn and cope. Like lambs being led to the slaughter, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) have no idea what’s in store for them. As they arrive, ready to replace two British barmaids who seem lost to booze and mania, they witness their potential futures, passed out and delirious on the sandy floor of their home above the bar.

Much of the film unfolds in extended sequences as the two women juggle catcalls and drinks. While Liv tries to make the best of it, performing winsome femininity as protection, Hanna remains guarded and unhappy. She wants to leave when they arrive, unable to bear the emotional burden of serving the boorish and rowdy clientele. 

The Royal Hotel works best when it captures details of the environment. When sounds, voices and pressures compound to channel the head-splitting experience of being overworked and vulnerable. The film’s strong sense of subjectivity draws us into Hanna’s perspective; time shifts and bends as she notes a strange man at a bar. This interaction might have been a romantic glance in another film, and here, it’s rooted in an animal instinct to flee. Whereas the power imbalance in The Assistant was articulated through absence, the men here are hangers-on, their bodies and emotions overwhelming in their intrusiveness, and their desperate loneliness would be pitiful if it weren’t so threatening.

Despite what works, though, the film lacks the rigour of The Assistant, and though it has a new perspective on what is otherwise a typical fish-out-of-water drama, it lacks the formal adventurousness to sell it fully. Though perhaps an argument can be made that the free-flowing alcohol at the centre of the film necessitates a more fluid narrative, the film’s organization and flow aren’t quite mutable enough either. The Royal Hotel is tied down by narrative tradition, and too many conventions overall. Despite Garner’s measured performance, Hanna often feels underwritten and underdeveloped. Her fear and anxiety lack a paradoxical counterbalance of longing for liberation. Though her character is mirrored in some ways with the more relaxed Liv, the film feels slightly imbalanced.

Narratively, the film mines a lot of compelling territory and is rarely dull, but its final act feels too orchestrated and expected. However, these types of stories are predictable. The lack of labour protections and the insistence to push through and smile create an environment where abuse is bound to run rampant. The “nice guy gone bad” trope is a trope for a reason — it’s unfortunately common. Though it does leave something to be desired in terms of storytelling, it reflects a deeper and darker truth about our world. The Royal Hotel may not be Kitty Green’s best work, but it’s still worth watching. ■

The Royal Hotel (directed by Kitty Green)

The Royal Hotel opens exclusively at Cinéma du Parc on Friday, Oct. 6. 

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