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TIFF 2023 Review: The Royal Hotel – “Uses the thriller genre to ramp up the tension.”

Courtesy of TIFF

In a Q&A period after the second screening of The Royal Hotel at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Kitty Green revealed that the name of the film is actually the most popular pub name in Australia.  So even though they shot in a town of 29 people in an abandoned building, the ubiquity of the name sends the message that this could be anywhere, any place and, for women, that this could happen to you.

Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) seem to be having the time of their lives on a party boat in Sydney Harbour.  But, backpacking across Australia their money runs out and they are forced to spend some time as part of a working holiday program.  The woman at the agency gives them their only option, a post in the outback, in a mining community, at The Royal Hotel.  The money will be good she says, but, “You’re going to have to be okay with a little male attention.”  Consider her the winner of the understatement of the year award.

Hanna and Liv arrive in the middle of nowhere.  It’s dusty, dry, arid; the type of place where only the toughest things survive.  They are picked up by Carol (Ursula Yovich), the partner of the perpetually drunk owner of the pub, Billy (Hugo Weaving).  As she drops them off, she locks them inside.  It’s a bar after all she warns them, keeping the few straggling loiterers outside until opening time.  Going to their rooms they run into the girls leaving their jobs, passed out on the floor, empty bottles everywhere.

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That night they learn the ropes at the pub, whose board sign outside now says “Fresh Meat”.  But while Liv seems to see the night as a sign of partying yet to come, Hanna cringes at every crass, sexist, and crude remark, from the man who tells her it ‘wouldn’t hurt you to smile a bit’ to the one who tries to order a ‘Dickens cider’ and has them repeat the order (say it out loud a couple times, it unfortunately makes awful sense).

As the mostly male patrons drink, things get loud and rowdy and their comments get worse.  After a few nights Hanna wants to leave, but the girls are at odds when Liv dismisses her friend’s concerns.  The question becomes whether they will survive their time at The Royal Hotel before things escalate past a point of no return.

Kitty Green, whose 2019 film The Assistant also starred Garner, returns to explore gender dynamics in a much more blatant, obvious way, one that uses the thriller genre to ramp up the tension.  Green, who co-wrote with Oscar Redding, creates a cast of reprehensible men, the type who think everything is a joke.  They know what they’re doing.  They just don’t care.

There are times when you feel one or two may be redeemable sorts, yet Green never really lets up on the menace and threat these men present, especially as they continue drinking, though she never uses that as an excuse for their abhorrent behaviour. Green based The Royal Hotel loosely from the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, which makes everything even more horrifying truthfully, as she notes many of the male characters are modelled after men from that film – real-life people.

Green continues her creative partnership with Garner, and has no issues putting her through the ringer yet again.  Garner does most of the heavy lifting here, especially as Hanna and Liv’s relationship becomes more tenuous, we see more from her point of view.  To her credit, Hanna doesn’t let her guard down, serving as a straight moral compass for the viewer – though if you need one at this point or see any of yourself in The Royal Hotel‘s characters it’s time for a long hard look in the mirror.

The Royal Hotel tries to toe the line at the horror genre in moments but is truly more of a thriller, so those who don’t care for all-out horror can certainly watch this without much worry.  But that’s not to say it’s not triggering and that, especially as a woman, you won’t feel the underlying current of danger Green creates.  It’s an underlying current that many of us feel frequently, even outside an isolated outback pub.

As a film, the thriller aspect is generally effective, but the build-up kind of fizzles out at its conclusion.  It’s as part of Green’s continued exploration of power and gender dynamics that The Royal Hotel truly finds its stride.  This film truly asks the question where we, as women, will draw the line, and also at the same time, where are the men who will do the same?

The Royal Hotel had its Canadian premiere September 11, 2023.  It is set for theatrical release October 6th.  For more information head to

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