Vacation blues: Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick in ‘The Royal Hotel’.
THE ROYAL HOTEL ** (91 minutes) MA
Strong start, great build-up, weak finish. That’s the most concise and accurate way to describe The Royal Hotel, the latest in a long stretch of Australian films to demonstrate the importance of having a compelling third act by essentially not having one.
Things are quite fine till then.
Directed and co-written (with Oscar Redding) by Kitty Green, the film tells of two young female American backpackers Hanna (Julia Garner, so good in Green’s debut The Assistant) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) who agree to work as barmaids in a remote pub to earn some desperately needed cash. (The film’s premise was inspired by the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie.)
Hungry for adventure and a few laughs they, of course, find they’ve bitten off much more than they can comfortably chew.
The pub, owned and run by gravel-voiced alcoholic Billy (Hugo Weaving) and his indigenous wife Carol (Ursula Yovich) is a grotty dump frequented by rowdy locals and FIFO miners for whom the concept of having a quiet drink after work appears to be an insult to their masculinity.
Amidst the nightly cacophony of spilt drinks and smashed glass the girls have to cope with enough coarse language and bad behaviour to drive any self-respecting barmaid onto the next bus out of town.
Unfortunately the bus comes but once a week leaving Liv and Hanna to tough it out, particularly with the friendly Matty (Toby Wallace) and the menacing Dolly (perfectly played by Daniel Henshall), two local louts who find the girls attractive.
The impressive directorial skills Green deployed in The Assistant are on enhanced display here.
Within the claustrophobic world of the pub she creates a pungent atmosphere so toxic you can almost smell the sweat and the grog breath.
As the girls get sucked into the local lore the sense of threat closing in around them builds incrementally, leading to some violent moments.
Performances are excellent throughout, with Weaving, Wallace, Yovich and the versatile Henshall (Snowtown; A Sunburnt Christmas) being especially convincing. (Why aren’t films being built around this guy?)
The big issue with the film, however, is that having built to a razor-sharp pitch Green flails with an insipid finale that is wildly at odds with the authentic tone she has so meticulously generated.
The film is working perfectly, then suddenly she tries hammering a square peg into a well-rounded film. It ruins everything.
What happened? Did they run out of money? Time? Was the film contracted to force-inject a big #metoo message, full of phallic symbols and implicit platitudes about the dreaded patriarchy?
Whatever the reason, it spoils what was shaping up to be a poignant piece of outback noir. What a pity.
THE MUSICAL MIND – A PORTRAIT IN PROCESS **1/2 (85 minutes) M
Designed to promote the 25th anniversary of Shine – and, presumably, to encourage people to revisit the film – its director Scott Hicks gives us The Musical Mind, a nicely done documentary that uses the occasion to look at the creative process.
As well as doing an extended catch up with David Helfgott, Hicks gets into the workings of rocker Daniel Johns, pop composer Ben Folds and classical pianist Simon Tedeschi to unpack their artistry.
The common theme that emerges is how important rule-breaking is, with Johns providing the most illuminating insights into the value of trial and error, with the emphasis on errors and how getting things wrong signals that you’re probably on the way to getting something right.
It’s a fine doco especially for the musically minded, though all the references to Shine get a bit much, making the film feel too much like a well-produced bonus feature on a special edition DVD.