Soon after two young Canadian women arrive at their new job as barmaids at an outback Australian pub, they quietly take the mickey out of Carol, who runs the Royal Hotel. “Down the back,” says Hanna, in a flat Aussie voice. “Up the stairs, mate,” says Liv, and they both laugh.
This outsider’s perspective as women thrown into the bearpit of toxic male culture in an isolated mining town gives the film its surprising power. They are never sure whether the men are just drunk and dateless, potential rapists, or axe murderers – which says a lot about the forbearance of ordinary Australian women working in pubs who laugh off sexualised horseplay because it comes with the job.
Director and co-writer Kitty Green, an Australian who directed a documentary and feature in the US, has history working in the grey zone of permissions not freely given. Her previous film The Assistant – also a collaboration with Julia Garner (Ozark), who plays Hanna – was set in a film production office. Garner played the new assistant who watched in silent horror as budding actresses were escorted into the boss’s office where business went on behind closed doors.
Green brings to this gem of a film the same sensibility of frogs immersed in boiling water who cannot decide between leaping to safety or slowly scalding to death. Its unexpected dramatic strength makes it a perfect choice to open the Adelaide Film Festival – and its exteriors were filmed at Yatina in the state’s mid-north, north-east of Port Pirie.
The drama slowly intensifies as the new arrivals look over their lodgings and stumble across the girls they were there to replace, both too hungover to speak. Behind the bar they are rushed off their feet as they face a torrent of innuendo, pranks and sexual come-ons. Green and her team are clever at capturing the rowdy pub atmosphere in which multiple conversations are going on, some with menacing undertones, while the girls try to keep the patrons happy.
Elements of horror creep in. The owner of the hotel, Billy (Hugo Weaving), is intimidatingly tall and rough, and an alcoholic to boot, so his partner, Carol (Ursula Yovich), has to look out for the newcomers. Among the regular drinkers are Matty (Toby Wallace), a handsome enough local who takes a shine to Hanna, while Liv (Jessica Henwick) has caught the eye of Teeth (James Frecheville from Animal Kingdom). Then there is Dolly, played by Daniel Hensall, whose role as John Bunting in Snowtown still marks him as capable of anything.
The atmosphere is filled with dread that falls just shy of horror. “Don’t go!”, “Stop doing shots!”, “Don’t dance on the bar!”, you want to scream as Liv starts to party. The girls divide as well; Hanna is more cautious while Liv is there to have fun.
The South Australian setting affords some lovely touches: a clear and dark night sky that shows the milky way, a pristine waterhole to swim in, and no one else around for miles. Whether that’s good or not is part of the menace.
Green is remarkable in the way she harnesses the power of story to raise a social issue that makes for uncomfortable viewing bordering on horror, yet never points a finger or lectures. The final scene, a radical left turn, is the film’s weak spot and the only time the director makes her feelings known.
The Royal Hotel was the opening night film of the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival and will screen again on October 27 at Palace Nova Eastend before its general release in cinemas on November 23. Read more Film Festival stories here.
This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.
InReview is an open access, non-profit arts and culture journalism project. Readers can support our work with a donation. Subscribe to InReview’s free weekly newsletter here.
Local News Matters
Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.