The Royal Hotel.
MA15+. 91 minutes.
Inspired by the documentary Hotel Coolgardie (2016), this Australian movie is heavily reminiscent of Wake In Fright (1971) - another fish-out-of-water story set in a small town.
Titling the film after Australia's most common pub name (there are hundreds of Royal Hotels) does it a bit of a disservice, making it sound generic, though the innocuous moniker doesn't prepare audiences for what's to come. Although the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House are seen at the start, this isn't going to be a film spruiked by Australia's tourism industry.
Director Kitty Green and her co-writer, Oscar Redding, display plenty of talent and the cinematography, production design and other technical and artistic aspects are effective.
Two young Americans, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are backpacking in Australia. Like many an American tourist, they're enthusiastic but not very cluey about the country - one is gauche enough to order Fosters' beer. They do, however, know enough to pretend they're Canadian ("Everyone likes Canadians," one says).
Since they're in need of money, Liv convinces Hanna to take the only job they can find, as temporary live-in bar workers at The Royal Hotel in a remote, tiny outback town. The employment agent warns them to expect some male attention but they think they're up for it. And the prospect of seeing kangaroos excites them.
Little do they know what's in store.
Although it's winter, the place is hot and decrepit. Wi-Fi access is spotty and there's very limited water for showering. The gruff publican Billy (Hugo Weaving) seems to drink a lot of his stock and neglect paying his bills, all to the annoyance of his partner Carol (Ursula Yovich), who runs the kitchen.
Liv and Hanna's first shift is the farewell party for the two British girls they're replacing. They have a lot to learn in a very short time about their clientele - who drinks what, who has special privileges, who is (temporarily) banned.
Even some Australians might be taken aback: the place is a throwback to an earlier era. The women have to get used to smiling through an endless stream of tasteless jokes, flirting, and the demands of impatient, sometimes aggressive customers. Hanna in particular is discomfited; Liv brushes it off as culture clash. In one nice bit of observation among many, the casual utterance of the "c" work shocks them, though they begin to recognise the nuances: it can be an abusive, non-specific or even friendly noun, or more than one at once, depending on the context.
As they were warned, Liv and Hanna attract attention from the men, two in particular. Dolly (David Henshall) is moody and menacing, Matty (Toby Wallace) seems more pleasant and Hanna finds herself attracted to him. But they have to remain on their guard.
The phrase "toxic masculinity" is not one bandied about in this place but many display it.
And, of course, things escalate.
The Royal Hotel seems like it might become a horror film or at least a thriller, but it's more of an intense drama.
The jarring finale might have been inspired by another fairly recent Australian film set in a small town. However, given this film's naturalistic tone and style it doesn't work as well here or as it would in a more conventional genre piece. What they do will affect those who don't deserve it and they probably wouldn't get away with it.
But there's plenty to compensate for that and the familiar premise. The film's astute observation of characters, social mores and gender relations lifts it and the slow-burn atmosphere is expertly managed.