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LFF 2023: The Royal Hotel Is a Nail-Biter

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

The first press showing of the 2023 London Film Festival kicked things off in rich style with Kitty Green’s nail-biting drama The Royal Hotel. Her last film, the haunting sexual harassment drama The Assistant, was one of my favorite films of 2019, and with this film not only reuniting the director with her muse Julia Garner but with rising star du jour Jessica Henwick, not to mention an exciting-sounding premise, it was one of my most anticipated films of this year’s festival. The Royal Hotel finds Green and company exploring similar territory of misogynistic micro aggressions and creeping disquiet, conjuring the spectral horrors of sexual violence, a latent offscreen threat ever looming over the characters. Once again, it’s Garner who plays the one woman who sees the danger and is being gaslit by those around her. Green continues to display her considerable talents as both a director and as a screenwriter, not only wrong-footing the viewer and disturbing their expectations, but also capturing the voice of her characters so fantastically.

Garner and Henwick play Hanna and Liv, two twenty something American friends backpacking around urban Australia. But when Liv runs out of cash, the two women are forced to take the only work their travel to work scheme can find at short notice, slinging beers at a shitkicker bar in a remote mining town to a clientele straight out of Wake in Fright. Hanna is dubious from the start, but the persuasive Liv has more of a jump-in-with-both-feet, “will-there-be-kangaroos?” mindset. Once they get there, the questions about whether they’re in for an adventure roughing it off their own back, returning home with suntans, hangovers, some hilarious anecdotes and maybe just an STI or two, or they’re just going to go missing one day after getting into a car with one of the quick-tempered local miners. Is Hanna just being overly cautious and stuck-up, or is Liv dousing herself in alcohol and playing with fire? 

So the thematic territory is familiar ground for Green, but the tropes and setting are very different. Aussie horror is full of examples of suburbanite interlopers confounded by the base pleasures and knife edged living of the outback. From the pretty young girls who wandered off from a Picnic at Hanging Rock and where never seen or heard of again, to Stacey Keach’s dad-energized American trucker driven to near madness while playing Roadgames, the outback does strange things to the mind and spirit, and to the body too, if it gets a chance. But the potential for this setting of rowdy outback bar and its dubious patrons for another exploration of the dehumanizing and paralyzing effects of misogynist culture is immediately obvious. However, unlike the cold, merciless world of The Assistant with its bare offices and mechanical college bros, the setting of The Royal Hotel is hot, intoxicating, loud, full of life, and full of humor. Green manages to capture the alluring, self-destructive fun of the dissolute lifestyle onscreen every bit as much as its nauseating, spirit-crushing horrors.

Despite the growing tension, it’s an unexpectedly funny movie, with rich with hilarious local characters and wry amusements with the chemistry between Garner and Henwick extremely credible and likeable. As frustrating for the viewer (and for Hanna) as Liv’s increasingly reckless behavior and blindness to the volatility of their new acquaintances is, their friendship remains endearing and wholesome, despite its fractures. They might make each other’s eyes roll plenty, but they still clearly love each other and Hanna fears as much for Liv’s safety as for her own.

Hugo Weaving barges into the movie and sets a land speed record for fastest hijacking of a movie with yet another wonderful character performance as Billy the drunken landlord with a permanent scowl and just as permanent beer stains in his beard. Babyteeth’s Toby Wallace makes a memorable appearance as well as immature local youth Matty, who like the more sinister Dolly (Daniel Henshaw) does a phenomenal job of flitting between charmingly gauche rural slacker and something genuinely dangerous, disgusting and frightening. We can see how Hanna might find some enjoyment in his company, but it’s also clear she might well come to regret encouraging him. There’s pathos in these characters as well as humor. Billy’s used to throwing drunks out of his bar, but his own alcoholism is getting out of his and his long suffering wife Carol’s (Ursula Yovich) hands. Their clashes start off humorous, and grow more tragic as Carol’s pain and despond at losing her husband to his addiction becomes more evident.

It’s a phenomenally well constructed piece, balancing its different goals with such a fantastically judicious hand. The Assistant showed Green could sustain an unbreakable tone of foreboding and hopelessness for ninety minutes, The Royal Hotel shows she can be as fleet-footed as she is commanding though, shifting tones impeccably, and telling a raw, cathartic tale without pressing buttons for effect. I’ve seen some complain that the film is anticlimactic, but for one, I’m glad she knew where to stop, and the insidious “what could’ve been” is just as alarming in its own way, preserving the film’s ambiguity without sacrificing its outrage. The abiding feeling The Royal Hotel leaves you with is not distress, fear or trauma, but the satisfaction of a rewarding, exciting tale well told, and a resolution that makes its point without resorting to cheap shocks.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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