Tuesday 7 November 2023

Bloody noses, empty pockets: "The Royal Hotel"

Like Bottoms, The Royal Hotel represents an expansion of sorts. Writer-director Kitty Green has followed up 2019's unnerving The Assistant - a close-knit, interior affair, largely unfolding within the one office building, which brought us nearer than any film to seeing, hearing and feeling the terrors of the Weinstein era - with a film set in the Australian Outback (and based in part on the 2016 doc Hotel Coolgardie) that locates much the same tension in vastly wider frames. Green's Assistant star Julia Garner - as taut as the curls in her hair and her Lillian Gish lips - has come along for the ride, pairing up with Jessica Henwick as two Canadian backpackers who, stuck for money in the midst of a year out, take a bartending gig at the one pub serving a remote mining community. Like Bottoms, this is a film that casts a knowing glance back to certain millennial film landmarks (in this instance, that post-Hostel cycle of horror-thrillers about innocents abroad), but then extends its gaze further still. The setting, and the film's understanding of the pub's centrality both to Australian life and Australian maleness, suggests an authorial familiarity with the recently rediscovered and canonised 1971 curio Wake in Fright - but The Royal Hotel is Wake in Fright repurposed by a newly empowered female cineaste: subtler, wilier, yet very much alert to the variety of threats girls face in such yahoo environments. Green comes this way not as a gorehound but an erstwhile documentarist; she doesn't have to crank anything up or bust out the buzzsaws to set a heavy coil of tension pulsing in your gut.

The biggest clue to Green's methods may in fact come before the film, in the form of the BBFC card, which indicates The Royal Hotel has been rated 18 for strong language alone. No prizes for guessing which epithet is coming the heroines' way; initially, it doesn't even possess much in the way of shock value, given that bluff, blokeish bar manager Billy (Hugo Weaving) drops the C-bomb as a backhanded term of affection in his introductory scene. But something about the casual repetition of that language continues to nag away at us, much like those raised voices we couldn't quite make out in The Assistant. The new film does exactly for the dusty, unloved, underregulated hotel of the title what the earlier film did for a 21st century production office: the Royal is either eerily quiet or scarily overpopulated - little in the way of half measures here - and on its busiest nights stuffy, so loud that even sweet nothings start to sound like half-heard threats, and awash with boozy, handsy or otherwise simmering men. You might put up with this kind of lairy fun for a few weeks so as to top up a bank account - and Green continues to be very sharp on showing us acts of work, the menial labour central to so many lives around the globe. Yet she also spies how quickly this grind wears on the feet, nerves and conscience: the leering customers (played by a rogues' gallery of the bristliest men in recent Aussie cinema, including James Frecheville from Animal Kingdom and Daniel Henshall from Snowtown), the relentless wiping and mopping and refilling, the need to grin and bear the worst of the chauvinism, either to maintain a revenue stream or simply to head off the prospect of physical violence. The frames have expanded between this film and Green's last, but the context remains the same, and so the walls of the bar begin to close in on us, too. Even before Billy points out the next bus doesn't pass through town for two days, there seems no easy escape.

This will be an odd thing to read at this juncture, but The Royal Hotel is altogether more relaxed than its predecessor, which was a brilliant pressure cooker from the get-go. Here, Green and co-writer Oscar Redding present us with microaggressions rather than intimations of criminal activity; there's always the sun or a Kylie tape or a threat as straightforward as a snake to pep scenes up. (I suspect this is why the film has landed studio distribution and a berth in the multiplexes.) Yet beneath that burnished exterior, the film sets out and details an entire ecosystem of exploitation; the sun ultimately spares no corner of this little universe from Green's piercingly critical gaze, and has only been let in as a potential disinfectant. It's not just the barmaids, bussed in and out as cheap, replaceable sources of labour; it's the delivery driver whose invoices have gone unpaid (Green casts an indigenous actor, Baykali Ganambarr, in the role, connecting this subplot to a whole history of oversights), and the worn-down clientele, driven to drink after long days spent parsing the soil to enrich someone a long way away. Weaving's Billy, notionally the most robust presence hereabouts, has himself problems with alcohol no truly responsible framework would allow; if you'll pardon the pun, a bar is set early on by the indifference of the agency worker (Bree Bain) who recruits our heroines as more grist to the mill (and is never heard to check on them: to her, it's just a job). Everybody on screen is suffering in some way, there isn't enough grog in the Territories to flush it all out, and what they do drink has the regrettable side effect of turning even fleeting moments of tenderness - an old-fashioned asking-out, an anniversary date - sour at best. Very little of the above is made explicit in the dialogue; instead, Green drops breadcrumb-like notes of disquiet into flinty, rigorously performed and marshalled scenes of interpersonal discord, before inviting us to see or imagine where these markers might lead. What I saw in The Royal Hotel was the advantage of turning fiction over to a documentarist prepared to make the audience work a dash harder and - right through to a blazingly resonant final image - put the editorial pieces together for themselves. Green here confirms herself as the new queen of something's-not-right cinema - and a valuable asset at a moment when so many people, systems and institutions just aren't functioning as they could and should.

The Royal Hotel is now playing in selected cinemas.

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