Miriam Balanescu writes on sinister sound design and masculinity in Kitty Green's sophomore feature The Royal Hotel.
In some ways, Kitty Green’s second feature film The Royal Hotel could not feel more different to her first. The Assistant, her debut, is seeped through with a sinister quietness, a deceptive calm in which anger – that of a Harvey Weinstein-like media mogul – is limited to a few barely audible words snarled over an office phone. Acts of male aggression towards female characters are only hinted at in the silent arrivals of emails, on the other end of an intercom, or muffled from behind a closed door.
The Royal Hotel is about another type of systemically enabled misogyny altogether: the loud kind, which often flourishes in spaces dominated by men boisterously trying to one up each other’s masculinity. Green casts Julia Garner in the lead role in both films, her facial expressions again betraying a self-effacing, wary unease, foreboding something bad to follow. But in Green’s second feature, male violence is far from hidden away, operating – even erupting – instead in plain sight.
Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are two young American backpackers (masquerading as Canadians at Liv’s insistence), who, after an alcohol-fuelled start to the trip in Sydney, find themselves low on funds. They are left no choice but to take up a temporary work placement at a crumbling pub in the Outback manning the bar, and are forewarned by their recruiter: “You’re going to have to be ok with a little male attention.”
After they begin work, the camera fixes on the young women at a distance from behind the bar, making visible the empty space around them and the leering men clamouring at its edges like an audience around a stage. The Royal Hotel watches on as “a little male attention” gets severely out of hand, and the two women at its centre struggle to anticipate danger which seems to launch itself at them from every direction.
Throughout, we become familiar with the Royal Hotel’s regulars, and each, in their own way, is dismissed as harmless. Matty (Toby Wallace) makes his first impression with a crude request for “Dickens cider”, with no more guile than a boy making a quip in a school playground; despite his tough name, Teeth (James Frecheville) seems like a softie, doting on Liv and politely offering her help while sat demurely on his barstool.
The only truly unsavoury character it seems is Dolly (Daniel Henshall), who lurks constantly in the corner of Hanna’s eye, strangely private compared to the other men, even pacing the corridors in the early hours outside the girls’ bedrooms. Of the pair, Hanna is more watchful and tries to convince Liv to avoid him, but her pleas are ignored and begin to drive a wedge between them. Reaching a point of desperation mid-way through the film, she implores Liv to leave with her, tearfully saying: “I don’t trust anyone here.”
Yet it becomes clear that no man alone holds the potential for the level of violence The Royal Hotel creeps towards. Toying with the tropes of the holiday horror genre – winding up in an unexpected place, having no option but to stay in a decrepit building, being met with hostility from the locals – Green piles on suspense, keeping just enough out of earshot until the end. As Hanna and Liv spend their breaks sunbathing, they hear women’s yells in the distance (which go unexplained), often ending with cackles of laughter, left wondering whether they should have stepped in to intervene; later, when Hanna is working in the kitchen, she picks up a distressed call from another former bar worker, before the line swiftly disconnects.
This noisiness becomes almost synonymous with the toxic masculinity at the film’s core, Green dissecting a maleness as unpredictable as it is potentially explosive. The thriller’s sound design is punctuated with the peal of firecrackers, the shatter of smashed glass, and eventually the rumble of all-consuming flames. A car is rammed into the caravan where the pub’s owner and his partner live, a snake hisses its way across the floor of the women’s rooms.
Since the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021 and the cases which followed, there has been a heightened cultural awareness around the relentlessness of the threat of male violence. Green seeks to actualise this imminent danger, putting Hanna – and us – on high-alert, the cacophonous soundscape nearly as maddening as the dread of danger itself. Though it is heavily dramatised, the violence has a very real foundation, with Green’s feature based on Pete Gleeson’s documentary Hotel Coolgardie. In that film, two Finnish backpackers encounter rampant sexism that bears an uncanny similarity to that in The Royal Hotel: untoward touching, downright harassment, being called “fresh meat” – words which are scrawled across the entrance to the pub where Hanna and Liv work.
Even so, The Royal Hotel reveals that this sense of menace is still easy to wave away. The danger is both tangible and intangible, something which can’t be pinpointed, but waiting to erupt. More so, the responsibility does not rest with any one individual. When fellow backpacker Torsten (Herbert Nordrum) unexpectedly pulls up at the pub in his rental car (blaring electronic dance music), Hanna hopes he is about to offer them an escape – but all too quickly, he joins the men’s behaviour. In attempting to locate the origin of this rotten misogyny, Green’s film discovers how deeply rooted and difficult to pull apart it is. Given the right time and the right place, The Royal Hotel suggests, any man can become a monster – and rarely those you would expect.
The Royal Hotel is in UK cinemas from November 3.