Something about Australia's relationship with alcohol feels singular. All countries have some sort of drinking culture, with countries like Ireland and Germany making the practice of consuming alcohol in social settings a beloved cultural event. And yet, where other countries often use alcohol as a component of celebration, Australian drinking culture seems driven by a need for excess. It isn't to drink to enjoy the taste or to enjoy the company of others with a social relaxant, but to drink to the point of full inebriation, to the point where inhibitions are buried and reality is warped. A night out is defined by being trashed, a pub is as much a home as where you lay your head, and physical collapse from drunkenness (falling over, vomiting, passing out) are seen as signs of success rather than concern. Within Australian drinking culture, alcohol is a means of forgetting, of annihilating the negative aspects of your life.
This is obviously quite a generalisation, but there is something deeply unsettling about a night out in Australia, whether it's in a city or a country town. There's an aroma of unchecked masculine fury in the air, a powder keg waiting for a match, a bomb about to explode. The air is thick, not just with the sickly scent of booze and sweat, but of violence. At its worst, an Australian pub is like an oncoming electrical storm. I've never liked these spaces, never felt safe in them, and that's as a fit, white, often straight-presenting Australian male. For anyone who doesn't adhere to the problematic ideal of masculinity that alcohol consumption in Australia promotes, and in particular for anyone who presents as female or feminine, I can't even imagine what these kinds of spaces and situations are like.
With her follow-up to her acclaimed narrative feature debut 'The Assistant' (2019), Australian filmmaker Kitty Green attempts to place us in that exact situation. Many great Australian films have explored the dark side of drinking culture in our country, the finest being 'Ted Kotcheff's' 1971 masterpiece 'Wake in Fright'. With 'The Royal Hotel', Green and co-writer Oscar Redding reframe these spaces and experiences through the eyes of two young female protagonists, faces that are often underwritten or relegated to the background in other films on the subject. The result is a wholly arresting, unexpectedly funny and deeply astute thriller that, through this reframing, offers a familiar story with a refreshing and necessary new perspective.
Hanna (Julie Garner, 'The Assistant') and Liv (Jessica Henwick, 'The Matrix Resurrections'), two Canadian backpackers travelling through Australia, have run out of money. In order to fund the rest of their trip, they take the first job they can find, travelling to a remote and isolated mining town and working the bar at its local pub, The Royal Hotel. Far from the sparkling beaches of the coast, the Royal is sweaty and dusty, run by drunkard publican Billy (Hugo Weaving, 'The Matrix') and his exhausted wife Carol (Ursula Yovich, 'Top End Wedding'). Hanna and Liv try and make the best of it, dealing with the hollering and the drunken leering of the miners, but while Liv begins to fall in step with them, Hanna can't see past the growing sense of danger, particularly from the possessive eyes of miner Dolly (Daniel Henshall, 'Snowtown'). It feels like something is about to break, and Hanna is increasingly terrified that, when it does, her and Liv will be at real risk.
The role of the outsider is vital to these kinds of critiques of Australian culture, and while 'The Royal Hotel' would certainly speak to the experiences of women in these kinds of alcohol-oriented spaces all over the world, the familiarity for an Australian audience with the very kind of space depicted in the film makes its resonance here all the stronger. Without an outsider perspective to observe and respond, the film (and by extension, we the audience) wouldn't be able to remain wholly objective or see commonly accepted behaviour within our culture as unacceptable. In this sense, Green is in active conversation with a number of great Australian works, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The most obvious is 'Wake in Fright', not by replicating its structure but by echoing some of the same questions and conundrums that film evoked, particularly around the rituals of excessive drinking as a form of social etiquette. That film also places an outsider at its centre, a Sydney-based male school teacher, but by centring the film on two female Canadian tourists, Green opens up the conversation of the film to a more rigorous commentary on gender. Hanna and Liv feel like not-too-distant cousins of Liz and Kristy in Greg McLean's seminal horror classic 'Wolf Creek', making a similar journey from the safety of the coast to the endless horizon of the continental interior, where an almost cartoonish archetype of the Aussie Bloke becomes a terrorising force.
The hotel itself, as incongruous and imposing to the landscape as Appleyard College in 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (1975), is populated by just such archetypal Australian men, specifically white Australian men. First Nations characters such as Carol and delivery man Tommy (Baykali Ganambarr, 'The Nightingale') sit on the periphery, almost never allowed within the doors of the hotel, wary of what happens within its walls. If Carol does enter, she does so with a forceful no-bullshit attitude as a suit of armour. When the pub is full, it's a sea of navy blues, greys and full-scraggly beards, making the contrast of Hanna and Liv all the stronger. They stick out like a sore thumb, but while the men act as if this is for their benefit, we know (through the specificity of Green's direction) that this is far from the case. That's the difference between 'The Royal Hotel' and a film like 'Wake in Fright' - the assumption that women only exist in these spaces as a means of entertainment or solace for them men is thrown out the window. Hanna and Liv are here to do a job, and the idea that this is their only objective not only baffles the men but threatens them. The only other woman in the bar apart from Hanna, Liv and Carol is Glenda (Barbara Lowing, TV's 'The Family Law'), who has conditioned herself into a fixture, a few degrees away from being "one of the boys". Hanna's refusal to follow suit breaks the pre-established social etiquette, and Liv's turn towards joining in potentially means losing her autonomy.
The situation for Hanna and Liv doesn't so much spiral out of control as creep towards chaos, slowly and methodically, so that by the time you realise they (and we) are caught in a trap, it's almost too late. Green's handle of tone and tension through the film is superb, balancing a growing sense of menace with a genuine comic spark. The world of the Royal sits at the knife's edge between the threatening and the ridiculous, much like the behaviour of the miners, and the dance these young women have to perform is trying to interpret which moment sits on which edge is at times endearing, at times ridiculous and at times nail-biting. For an Australian audience, there's a real charm in watching Hanna and Liv interpret our strange customs or colloquial phrases, but Green carefully transforms those funny fish-out-of-water moments to those of real danger. The risk of being an outsider in this environment (and one could say, in Australia) is that the tolerance for not understanding the customs only goes so far, and when alcohol is introduced, the fuse gets even shorter. In the film's most intense sequence, Hanna finds herself caught between a visiting older couple on their honeymoon (again, a pair of outsiders) and the building drunken rage of Dolly, who sees Hanna's polite rejection of him and request for him to leave as the deepest of insults. Doesn't she understand that his violent pursuit of her is a compliment? Doesn't she trust him that he'll show her a good time? Doesn't she know she's safe with him? Hanna doesn't see that though. She sees a drunken man threatening her physically, making increasingly uncomfortable demands of her and using increasingly unacceptable language and physical threats towards her and her customers. She is standing in the face of exposed male entitlement, and this is what really ties all the miners together against these young women - even the polite ones feel entitled to them.
The situation for Hanna and Liv doesn't so much spiral out of control as creep towards chaos, slowly and methodically, so that by the time you realise they (and we) are caught in a trap, it's almost too late.
'The Royal Hotel' is a rich, detailed text, made all the stronger by the familiar structure and the lean towards traditional thriller tropes. Each set piece is carefully constructed, a little pressure-cooker of building tension, so that the commentary underpinning the film enhances rather than dominates. This is another way in which the unexpected humour of the film is weaponised; it acts as a short, sharp release of tension in order to distract the audience from the next shock. You feel like you're on a real ride with 'The Royal Hotel', where suspecting what might be coming adds to the dread and anticipation. Cinematographer Michael Latham leans into the extremes of the environments, with blazing sunshine and dust-filled, fetid shadows. The hotel in particular is a highlight of the film, both from Latham's photography and lighting, and the detailed work of production designer Kirsty McGregor and art director Troy Dignon. You get such a sense of history of this pub, both from the myriad of strange objects (in particular, the jars of dead snakes) and in the suggestions of what it once looked like. Everything about this place, from fading paint to the aimless patrons to the cycle of despair in its owners, gives the sense of being on the edge of the world, erosion slowly creeping closer and closer before it falls into the abyss.
Nailing the performances in such a film is a tricky task, and across the board, this terrific ensemble cast land with aplomb. Garner and Henwick make a fantastic team, united in their shared bafflement at this strange place and specific in how their characters respond to it. Garner in many ways carries the weight of the film by virtue of being the one person with the clearest vision, a full awareness of what is going on. This all might appear to be harmless, an argument Liv makes early in the film, but what unnerves Hanna is the possibility that harmlessness may easily turn into harm. The best part of Garner's performance though is her refusal to play Hanna as simply affected. She has a determination and a power, able to command a space where necessary. In moments where Liv is in danger, Hanna responds and defends, refusing to allow these men to intimidate her. Henwick supports Garner with empathy, humour and openness, at first tricking us into thinking that Liv is the most in control before revealing her as the more vulnerable. They are supported by some of our best actors, from legends such as Weaving and Yovich, to the recent generation of Australian talent such as Henshall and James Frecheville. There's also a surprise appearance from 'The Worst Person in the World' star Herbert Nordrum as a Swedish tourist caught up in the drunken fun and games.
It's to the credit of Kitty Green's exemplary filmmaking with 'The Royal Hotel' that I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this film. At the post-screening Q&A for the Brisbane International Film Festival, the room was filled with praise and comments from many women in the audience, speaking about how familiar this all felt, how they could remember being in similar situations, how much we don't talk about how unsafe these spaces can be for women. The fact this film is able to elicit this kind of response, all while delivering a taught, impressive piece of entertainment, be noticed by critics and audiences across the world and on a limited budget and schedule is a real testament to its achievement. The more it has sat with me, the more impressed I am with 'The Royal Hotel', a worthy addition to the canon of great Australian films questioning the idea we have of who we are.