The Royal Hotel: You Can Never Leave, by Scott Nye
Kitty Green’s narrative debut – 2019’s The Assistant – was one of the most striking independent films of the past five years, portraying a complex series of systems and personal compromises that maintain toxic and abusive power structures in place. In it, Julia Garner plays a mild-mannered young woman determined to both stand her ground and make a career for herself, twin impulses that she quickly finds come into conflict, but which cannot find easy resolution.
Green’s follow-up, The Royal Hotel, could almost be a sequel – Julia Garner stars as Hanna, a mild-mannered young woman determined to both stand her ground and earn enough money to complete her suddenly-cash-strapped vacation with friend Liv (Glass Onion’s Jessica Henwick). When they suddenly find their accounts depleted, however, they’re on a boat in Australia, and the only available work-for-travel job is at a dilapidated bar in a rural mining town with living quarters on the second floor. Their staffer warns them things can get a little rowdy out there.
And rowdy they quickly get. Billy (Hugo Weaving), the bar’s owner, essentially lets the place run itself, save for his occasional intervention to try to prevent reckless spending like “taking a shower,” and enjoys the company of the men who maintain his living while making those of his employees’ Hell. The last girls are just on their way out, laughing and flashing along the way, as Hanna and Liv settle in. The bar itself, production designer Leah Popple’s decrepit creation, is an old drunk, filled with fresh booze that’s gnawing away at its innards. The miners expect quick service, big smiles, and plenty of allowances for bad behavior.
Like The Assistant, though, Green is wisely attuned to the ways in which the girls – without encouraging the behavior – come to allow it under certain circumstances, clouding their own comfort levels once things become more aggressive. One wild patron (Babyteeth’s Toby Wallace) reveals a sweet side that Hanna takes to, affections which he comes to assume too much from and which she becomes uncomfortable maintaining. The film eventually takes on the form of a more overt thriller, but much of the terror of the first two-thirds comes from a series of interactions that men present as ordinary but which Hanna especially knows at any moment could turn dangerous. The real drama comes when she and Liv disagree on how to respond to them, further isolating Hanna in this far-off land.
While The Assistant drew comparisons to Jeanne Dielman for its stately, rigid shot compositions and rhythm, The Royal Hotel – which reteams Green with cinematographer Michael Latham but brings in Kastra Rassoulzadegan as editor – has more the form of a conventional thriller, something in the vein of Dead Calm or Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, films where the widescreen frame draws out the tension through the slight, anamorphic lens distortion, and the fear comes just as much from what we do see as from whatever is settling just outside the frame. The film stays resolutely with the girls, Hanna especially. This adopts her perspective of constant fear, enables it with micro-(and eventually macro)aggressions, challenges it in her self-punishment, only to double down on all she suspected when she’s already so sunk in that her initial instincts to simply run away are now impossible to realize.
Green uses the language of a thriller to challenge how we all – and women are especially forced to – temper our instincts that something is deeply wrong by way of maintaining a semblance of peace. Hanna isn’t wrong to think it’s a massive red flag early on that Billy bursts in on them when they’re practically naked just to save his water bill. She isn’t wrong to want to leave right away. But she also isn’t wrong to accept that remaining there is their only viable financial solution and, at the time, potentially perfectly safe, just uncomfortable. The Royal Hotel offers only outrageous compromises that are nevertheless an everyday facet for more women. Like all good thrillers, it takes that kernel we’re all familiar with and blows it up, bringing all those emotions to cinematic realization.
It’s a very difficult road to navigate for any director, but Green once again demonstrates why she’s one of the strongest, most vibrant, and quietly curious new voices we have.