In “The Royal Hotel,” director Kitty Green’s gripping, grubby Australian Outback noir, the Royal Hotel is a comically unregal place lit by the dead glare of fluorescent lights, dotted with predatory eyes lurking in the shadows.
The eyes belong to the men working for the local mining company. At this remote, two-story dump in the middle of nowhere — part saloon, part boarding house for temporary workers — two American women arrive to make some quick money behind the bar. Sensible and wary Hanna, played by Julia Garner, and her more reckless, up-for-anything friend Liv, played by Jessica Henwick, (both superb) realize very quickly that they’ll be putting up with trash talk, harassment, uncertain pay schedules and worse.
They’re expected by the owner of the Royal, the frequently drunk Billy (Hugo Weaving, a long, shaggy way from “The Matrix”), to perform the usual female paradox while they’re there and the customers are thirsty: Shut up, take it and smile. “You’re driving ‘em all away with that attitude,” he warns the cautious Hanna. “The Royal Hotel” tightens its screws with every scene, taking the premise into ever-darker territory without losing its authentic sense of place and people.
Liv, whose financial duress leads to them taking this gig on a wing and a prayer, at first just wants to see some kangaroos. Hanna goes along for the ride. By the end of the first day and night in the pub, navigating a nasty but never caricatured variety of men, Hanna wants out. But she stays. There’s a harsh kind of beauty here, especially at night, with stars brighter than she’s ever seen. But in daylight or in moonlight, the sounds of fear and knife-edge trouble are everywhere.
Green co-wrote the taciturn screenplay with Oscar Redding; this is her second narrative feature (she’s made two feature-length documentaries as well). Her previous drama, “The Assistant” (2019), drew a remarkable performance from Garner as a film executive’s assistant caught in the crosshairs of a Harvey Weinstein-style predator. See that film if you haven’t; it’s a minimalist marvel of precision and perception.
The simple, sturdy plot of “The Royal Hotel” demands something other than minimalism, but Green’s sophomore triumph is no less precise than “The Assistant” in its staging, editing and perceptiveness about what women put up with most every day of their lives. Kasra Rassoulzadegan served as editor; Michael Latham’s cinematography is spot on, in seductive sunshine as well as the murk of the bar itself. Every supporting performance feels perfectly cast and shrewdly delivered, with standout work from Ursula Yovich’s Carol, the Aboriginal Australian cook whose life with the bar’s owner has plainly been a bleak one.
The film’s reception along the festival circuit has been respectful but the movie deserves more than that. I was with it right to the last line; Garner and Henwick are doing the kind of acting that looks easy but isn’t. It’s a film of flickering doubts and accumulating, justifiable paranoia.
Green has made two very different, extraordinarily efficient and compact movies in a row. That, too, may look easy but is anything but — unless you’re a filmmaker and writer of her particular gifts.
‘THE ROYAL HOTEL’
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content and nudity)
Running time: 1:31
How to watch: Now in theaters and streaming on Prime Video
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