“The Royal Hotel” is the kind of bar you enter with an exit plan.
The titular dive teems with miners eager to blow off steam in the crudest way possible.
That leaves the film’s female leads scrambling to stay safe behind the bar, worried the temporary gig might leave a mark.
Director Kitty Green (“The Assistant”) turns the provocative setting into a slow-burn character study of consequence. What Green can’t do is deliver a third act worthy of the set-up.
Hanna and Liv’s Australian adventures hit a snag when they run out of cash. The intrepid Canadians find a compromise – they land a gig tending bar near a remote mining town.
That means the clients are lonely miners happy to swap insults and come-ons with the new barkeeps.
Hanna (“Ozark” standout Julia Garner) is repelled by their behavior while Liv (Jessica Henwick) shrugs it off as the locals’ “culture.”
Yes, that divide matters.
The young women get some protection from the bar owner, a perpetually soused gent played by Hugo Weaving. The only saving grace? The maternal cook (Ursula Yovich) has more sense than anyone in the immediate vicinity.
It’s only a matter of time before the bar shenanigans go from comical to criminal.
Writer and director Kitty Green on working with Julia Garner, casting Jessica Henwick and The Royal Hotel's intense writing and filming process.
— BAFTA (@BAFTA) November 3, 2023
“The Royal Hotel” takes its time but never leaves us bored. Green captures the small details of the Australian landscape, from the ubiquitous kangaroos to flourishes that give the film a ripe sense of time and place.
We can start with the hotel itself, a fascinating place that looks like a stiff wind could knock it over.
The locals add more texture, especially Matty (Toby Wallace), who seems willing to court Hanna in as close to a romantic fashion as the culture allows.
The leads’ gender is never out of focus. These are petite women serving booze in a boisterous “Hotel,” and every time they return a smile it puts them closer to potential trouble.
The screenplay doesn’t overplay that reality until the third act. The story takes a more sinister turn and suddenly “The Royal Hotel” takes a page from “Thelma & Louise.”
A key character starts behaving as if she were at an American Applebees, not a bar where just about anything can happen.
Green, who co-wrote the script with Oscar Redding, keeps some details out of sight. We don’t know why Hanna and Liv are so dedicated to their vacation, only that they’re eager to escape something back home.
The lack of back stories makes “The Royal Hotel” richer and more rewarding.
It’s clear Green and co. hope to illuminate the physical gender divide, and the team does so effectively for much of the film. Yes, the locals are an intimidating lot although the soft-hearted Teeth (James Frecheville) appears to be an exception.
That third act finds Green’s steady hand starting to wobble.
Our heroines begin acting in ways that scream, “you go, girl!” over both common sense and fidelity to the preceding scenes.
Still, “The Royal Hotel” is both fresh and vital, and the frustrating finale can’t erase that.
HiT or Miss: “The Royal Hotel” serves up a slow but steady buildup of tension in a setting we rarely see on screen.