In The Royal Hotel, a pair of attractive but gullible young American women on vacation decide to take jobs as waitpersons in a bar in the deepest Australian Outback. It could be fun. They might see kangaroos. Once they get past the impenetrable accents and mannerisms of the “ockers,” they can make some money and see how people live in one of the most remote, barren locales on Earth. It’ll only be for a few weeks. What could possibly go wrong?
In director Kitty Green’s highly lubricated thriller—which she co-wrote with Australian actor-turned-screenwriter Oscar Redding—our two international adventurers have obviously never heard about such Oz pub entertainments as dwarf-tossing, Buffalo Club or the Tom Thumb drinking game.
More disconcertingly, Hanna (Julia Garner) and her workmate Liv (Jessica Henwick) probably haven’t looked at any of the vast array of movies dedicated to the idea that a person should never wander into one of those dusty Australian watering holes with their guard down and start quaffing the local beer like there’s no tomorrow. If they’re unlucky, there might not be a tomorrow.
Terrible things could happen. Look at the tourist mishaps in Gone and Outback for shades of Deliverance; Black Water for killer crocodiles in Northern Territory; or the daddy of them all, filmmaker Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 Wake in Fright, with drunks shooting roos from all-terrain vehicles. Or The True History of the Kelly Gang, with its grisly outlaw violence. Or Rabbit-Proof Fence, with its anti-Aboriginal racism. The list goes on. Visitors: Venture out back at your own risk.
Hanna and Liv know nothing about any of that when they sign up for the job, so naturally we worry about them. The rowdy patrons of the Royal Hotel bar, under the semi-watchful eye of owner Billy—veteran ’Strine actor Hugo Weaving—are indeed a trifle boisterous. In fact, they’re lager louts on parade, a pack of burly miners existing in the boondocks with pretty much only beer and their crude, misogynistic sense of humor to pass the time after work.
The team the boys are playing against, as it were, is a fairly accurate caricature of educated, urban, female stateside office workers who yearn to “get away from everything back home,” but who somehow neglected to do their homework. The type of Americans who pretend to be Canadian when they travel overseas, as if the people they encounter know or care enough to make the distinction.
Garner’s Hanna comes across as careful, prim, slightly prudish, unamused and generally aghast at the ockers’ antics—the kind of person whose most frequent question is: “Is it safe?” She probably should have gone to Singapore or Bali instead, but definitely not Pa Tong Beach, in Thailand. Henwick’s Liv, however, has a more carefree worldview. Two worlds collide. Misunderstandings accumulate. The women get fed up. Violence ensues, predictably.
The manner in which the filmmakers handle the culture clash doesn’t display much imagination. The pub guys may be childish and sexist, but aside from Dolly (Daniel Henshall)—a bitter, tense loser—they’re not demonstrably evil, just garden-variety drunken slobs. Hanna, however, can’t tell the difference. She doesn’t really belong at the Royal. As Liv explains to her at a tense moment in the home stretch: “You’re the embarrassment.”
Australian native filmmaker Green and actor Garner collaborated on a much more interesting film, 2020’s The Assistant, a worthwhile dramatic exploration of the #MeToo issue, told from the viewpoint of a worker—played by Garner—caught up in a repulsive sexual dilemma on the job in a New York office. The Royal Hotel, a reasonably similar riff on the habits of sexual predators and their dismayed victims, may have aspired to be more provocative than it actually turns out to be. Its writing problems fatally weigh it down. This trip down under turns out to be a bit of a blunder.