Vague Visages’ The Royal Hotel review contains minor spoilers. Kitty Green’s 2023 movie features Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick and Herbert Nordrum. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Based on Kitty Green’s first two fictional feature films (after a pair of documentaries), the Australian director makes anti-thrillers. The Assistant (2019) is about a junior assistant at a film production company whose unnamed, unseen boss sexually harasses women in his office. Similarly,The Royal Hotel resembles a thriller, but moves the pieces around and plays with the genre formula. Green’s new film also has unpredictable but effective comic timing, unlike the necessarily stoic The Assistant. The Royal Hotel applies uneasy laughs to a recognizable social inequality, bringing to mind Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).
The Royal Hotel stars Julia Garner as Hanna, a Canadian backpacker who joins a “work and travel program” at a remote pub-hotel in the Australian outback. She signs up with her friend Liv (Jessica Henwick), who reminds the main protagonist that they are only there to save up money to see the country. As Hanna becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the obnoxious, drunk and/or unhinged male clientele (and landlord) at the Royal, Liv tries to reassure her that the men are harmless.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘White Men Can’t Jump’
Green’s 2023 film encourages viewers to distrust its male characters by aligning them with Hanna’s uncertainty and suspicion. As she tells Liv, “I’m weak, and I’m scared, and I just want to go home.” Hanna’s actions prior to and beyond this point show that she is not weak, because the protagonist directly addresses the sources of her discomfort, immediately challenging actions and remarks that she does not approve of — including sexist jokes by the Royal’s regulars and the advances of a 40-something male.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘No Hard Feelings’
Like Hanna, viewers can scrutinize the things happening around the main character, and wonder when events will spiral through men connected to the Royal: the alcoholic landlord who is reluctant to pay them; the lonely regular performing kindness; the mysterious regular who stumbles up to their rooms above the bar long after it is closed; the arrogant man closer to their age who fancies Garner’s character. Hanna is entrapped within the structure of a thriller, one that is occasionally suggestive of a horror film — a potential teased rather than consummated. The Royal Hotel recalls the classic Australian New Wave films Wake in Fright and Walkabout (both released in 1971).
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘A Million Miles Away’
But The Royal Hotel only gestures towards these narrative frameworks of isolated wandering and escalating crisis. Like The Assistant, Green’s follow-up prefers to turn away from expected models of growing tension and progressive situational development. The Assistant is a thriller with the air deliberately sucked out of it and the pace slowed to walking, with an antagonist that’s heard but never seen, one who is unnamed but constantly referred to. The Royal Hotel offers a variety of possible antagonists until the film runs out time to nominate a clear one. Hanna is smarter than the legacy of victimized women central to thrillers and horror films — through her, Green’s latest release signposts (and usually nullifies) new threats and potentially dangerous outcomes.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘Air’
The result is an anti-thriller that tactically navigates the genre conventions it invites comparison to. Like its defiant protagonist, The Royal Hotel resists predetermined patterns of behavior and familiar feelings of bad things happening, relating to sexual harassment for Hanna. In terms of the thriller genre, the film contradicts how characters are often attacked and killed while seeking phone service, or when methods of escape are limited and allies are outnumbered by adversaries.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’
By design, The Royal Hotel blows the function of the red herring out of proportion. As soon as Hanna and Liv arrive, signs are systematically presented and then forgotten when they are deemed harmless (by Hanna’s own conclusion, not Liv’s). When the girls first meet the landlord Billy (Hugo Weaving)’s wife Carol (Ursula Yovich), she ignores their passports and papers, simply asking, “You gettin’ in or what?” When they arrive at the Royal, the girls’ question of “Do you know the Wi-Fi?” is laughed off. Later, Hanna gets excited at a gas station down the road, because she is able to receive a phone signal.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Soundtracks of Television: ‘Inventing Anna’
As The Royal Hotel plays out, Hanna realizes the informality of their work/travel arrangements and becomes too distracted to need Wi-Fi. Garner’s character is capable enough of dealing with the situation herself, so she does not even try to phone for help. These red herrings accumulate to the extent that one might question whether The Royal Hotel is turning in on itself. The when/how of Hanna and Liv running into a serious problem is replaced by disbelief in any threats being able to have an impact… until this is replaced, again, by the likelihood that everyone is dangerous.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Know the Cast & Characters: ‘Killer Book Club’
The fluctuation between these stages in The Royal Hotel generates an additional layer of self-aware narrative control, as Hanna realizes that she is being gaslighted. The foresight empowers rather than prohibits, so instead of fearing whatever might be coming — even if it’s nothing — she carries around a weapon of choice: an axe, found in the dirt behind the building.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘Cocaine Bear’
The Royal Hotel’s recalibration of genre/narrative expectations differs from The Assistant’s more straightforward declaration of its anti-thriller method. Green spells out the problem and its perpetrator, emphasizing that the villain deserves neither a name nor face, and then maps this onto the fallout of the #MeToo movement, specifically the Harvey Weinstein scandal. This puts distance between the director’s previous film and her latest, even if misogyny in the workplace is the complex topic she is not yet finished with — a subject that was never defined by one movement and is not reducible to one industry or line of work.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Know the Cast: ‘The Changeling’
The differences between the equally impressive The Assistant and The Royal Hotel prove that there is more room for subversive thrillers directed by Green. Her 2019 film immediately alienates its unnamed protagonist, whereas the opening scene of the 2023 release sees Garner’s character run out of money and borrow her friend’s card to buy drinks. Liv eventually sobers up and later supports Hanna at the Royal, too.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Soundtracks of Television: ‘Who Is Erin Carter?’
The Royal Hotel constantly works itself out and defies how things are usually done. The film also resists the implications of that defiance. Like Hanna, Green holds an axe more often than using it. There is frustration and fatigue in her stories that will resonate with women who know all too well about social inequalities and imbalances. As a filmmaker, Green prioritizes outsmarting existing structures over swinging at what she knows will be rebuilt if struck down.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) has just finished a PhD on contemporary fiction at King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer. George’s recent publications include Avatar Review, BRUISER, Clackamas Literary Review and Watershed Review, and he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at: https://georgeoliverkowalik.wordpress.com/.
The Royal Hotel Review: Related — Know the Cast: ‘The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon’