Julia Garner steps behind the bar of the pub from hell

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91 minutes, rated MA
Directed by Kitty Green
Selected release

Geographically speaking, this second fiction feature from Australian writer-director Kitty Green is a world away from her craftily restrained 2019 debut The Assistant, starring Julia Garner as an ethically compromised dogsbody at a boutique New York film production house, run by an unseen despot widely taken to be modelled on Harvey Weinstein.

The title in this film refers to a pub in the Australian outback, where the youthful heroine, again played by Garner, is employed pulling beers rather than mixing protein shakes. In other respects this is the same old story, as if to underline the message that patriarchy isn’t the kind of thing you can take a holiday from.

Sipping cask wine at the bottom of a disused swimming pool is about the only distraction for Julia Garner’s character.Credit: See Saw Films

Garner’s character, Hanna, and her friend Liv (Jessica Henshaw) are backpackers who run out of money in Sydney (what got them to this point is purposely kept vague, though their claim to be Canadian is clearly shaky). The only option is to accept whatever short-term work is on offer – and so soon they’re on a bus to the middle of nowhere, Green’s camera panning round the empty desert in the manner of Wake in Fright.

That’s not the only cinematic precursor that might spring to mind. Hugo Weaving, as the pub’s owner-manager, has some of the hyperbolic blokiness of John Jarratt in Wolf Creek; more directly, the film is an acknowledged riff on the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, which follows two Finnish backpackers during an unhappy stint at a comparable mining-town pub.

From banter to harassment: Matty (Toby Wallace) and Billy (Hugo Weaving) with Liv (Jessica Henwick)Credit: See Saw Films

With its wood panelling and dangling fluorescent lights, the interior in The Royal Hotel looks nothing like its far less atmospheric documentary counterpart. Still, each is a stage where the same drama is played out: working behind the bar means managing the needs of the mostly male customers, a stressful enough task even when no-one steps over the arbitrary line separating banter from harassment.

The decor may be old-school but the dynamics are timeless. Most Australians will be familiar with the various brands of more-or-less toxic masculinity on display embodied by a skilled cast including Toby Wallace as a smirking young larrikin, James Frecheville as a sullen “quiet type,” and Daniel Henshall as the kind of drunk who never wants to go home.

As for the wider surroundings, sipping cask wine at the bottom of an empty swimming pool is the nearest thing to entertainment. But if this particular back-of-beyond is far from an enchanted place like the opal-mining town in Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours, nor is it a literal hell on earth: it seems possible the film will descend into full-blown Australian Gothic, but equally that the sense of threat could be enough in itself.

For much of its running time, The Royal Hotel isn’t a horror movie or a thriller, or even a straightforward feminist polemic: it’s a carefully ambiguous, only moderately heightened study of everyday power relations, informed by dynamics of class as well as gender (not to mention race, although the proprietor’s Indigenous companion, played by Ursula Yovich, is the least persuasively realised major character).

Like The Assistant, the film can also be taken as a fable, its enclosed setting a microcosm of a bigger world (or the world in general). Unlike The Assistant, the balance between realism and abstraction isn’t maintained quite until the end, which is effective in its way, but less than a fully convincing resolution to what has come before. After all the build-up, it’s understandable that Green would want to provide some sort of catharsis. But it could also be that she too wound up feeling she had a public to please.

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