Travel all over the countryside, they said, see the sights, they said
dir: Kitty Green
The film festival of “Australians are terrible” continues, except now it’s updated to 2023.
Yes, what I did was recently watch and write about a classic Australian film about people in shitty mining towns being appalling human beings and drinking themselves stupid out of sadism, masochism, boredom and existential dread. That film was Wake in Fright, and it’s about as nasty a depiction of what a lot of true blue, dinky di, fair go, Aussie Battlers were like 50 years ago, and will be 50 years into the future, unless the sweet meteor of Death wipes us all out or that orange pile of earwax achieves the highest office of the land in his country of origin yet again.
And now, The Royal Hotel is the special of the day, the main course of a movie depicting how shitty Australians are (mostly men but women too) to each other but especially to women. Backpacker women. Canadian (allegedly) women. But women, especially.
Two young “Canadians” (they’re really not, but they think everyone hates Americans) party in Sydney like it’s 1999, or until their cash runs out. Visa conditions being what they are, they find work at a remote pub many hours west of Sydney, so far away that it’s South Australia. As far as I could tell there’s a pub, and a mine, and an endless supply of shitty men to hassle them, and nothing else.
Hugo Weaving, playing somewhat against type, since in recent roles he’s been more of a kinder, gentler kind of guy, plays one of the roughest and nastiest types of Hugo Weaving roles that I’ve seen in ages. And he played Agent Smith for crying out loud.
He is abrasive and shocking as the publican, well, shocking to the girls, and he’s not even trying to be that much of a prick to them. Unlike many of the pieces of shit pub owners I’ve come to know and loathe over the years, he’s not even the one directly sexually harassing the female staff. But he does see it as a condition of employment that the girls be pliable and all ‘golly gee oh you’ as they constantly get harassed by the patrons.
The explanation of which beers are which, and how that corresponds to buttons on the register, is a classic piece of workplace fuckery, of something that makes perfect sense to those who know the system, but means absolutely nothing to a newbie.
I’m not quoting directly, but I just found it so funny. It runs something like “If someone asks for a red that means this green bottle, but if they ask for a green that means either one of these green or red bottles, but if they ask for a blue it’s one of these three other gold ones. But on the register, green is red, red is gold, gold is purple, there are fourteen other yellow buttons, and fuck ya if ya didn’t understand the first time!” all yelled at top volume hoarsely by their drunken patron.
The women themselves: Liv (Jessica Henwick) and Hanna (Julia Garner) are completely unprepared for any of this, and don’t really get more prepared as time rolls on. This is meant to be for a number of weeks, this indentured servitude, but we really only get to see them experience this horrible place for a brief period of time (just like schoolteacher John Grant in “the Yabba” for one incredibly eventful weekend in Wake in Fright). It’s just a few days, but it feels like a hellish eternity.
The men. They are terrible. They are all terrible. The atmosphere created around the town and especially in the pub is one of dread. Individually, and together, they are so practiced at the art of terrorising women that, to none of them does any of this seem wrong.
I think it takes Liv a day to ‘go native’ and start drinking with the other lowlifes while she’s working. She laughs at their dumb jokes and sexual threats, and thus gets more tips. And is liked. She reassures the men that how they act is fine, how they treat women is cool, and it’s all just a bit of fun.
Hanna doesn’t see it that way, and knows right from the start that things will get messy, because they are in the presence of practiced predators marinating in an atmosphere of sexism and misogyny, who think all of this is fine. The few other women onsite, like the cook and the publican’s partner (I think?) Carol (Ursula Yovich), can’t do shit to protect Liv or Hanna. And in one case, with one older woman who’s attached to the bar (Barbara Lowing), she seems to revel in the younger women’s peril.
There are some of the guys who don’t overtly seem like they’re monsters, but all of them are terrible, sorry, spoiler alert. All men are terrible, but especially the ones here. The clear sense we get is that every time a new duo of (always female) employees change over at the pub, the men compete to see who can either “date” them for a while, or just get them drunk then assault them. The constant verbal abuse, the seemingly harmless requests to “smile more”, in other words, to cop abuse and then say “thank you” in order to spare the feelings of these pieces of shit, the deranged atmosphere that they could be attacked at any time and they’d deserve it: it solely serves the egos of the men, and it is meant to break down the self-worth of the women.
When it’s barely begun, it’s already worked on Liv. But Hanna is made of sterner stuff, and is determined to save her friend and herself from something that it’s only implied, not set out specifically, that they’ve experienced before and had to flee from.
You know, when they fled from “Canada”.
Both of the women are great in their roles, but Julia Garner as Hanna has the tougher role. I have to say for me it’s really hard to watch a film like this. Watching a 90 minute flick about women constantly being threatened is exhausting. The dismissals of one’s feelings, the discounting, the constant suggestions, the constant implications of being seen as lesser than, as not having even a say as to bodily autonomy, the rage, the bruised egos that need to be pacified lest it escalate to more violence, and all of that is well before the actual horrific violence, all on the screen.
I am aware of the irony of me writing such a thing, because I feel like any woman reading this could mutter to herself “well, motherfucker, try putting up with it for on and off for decades from the age of 12 onwards and then get back to me just because you watched a fucking 90 minute movie...”
To which I would stutter with embarrassment: “um, fair point, sorry.”
This flick doesn’t have artistic pretentions (beyond the standard ones of wanting to look good and be admired by film critics and hopefully audiences as well), and it’s not portrayed in such a manner that gives the audience any distance. It doesn’t have the genre trappings of horror, which is another way of giving the audience some breathing space (such that if it were a horror flick, even more terrible things could be depicted, but they would come with their own expectations, tropes, clichés, which again allows the audience some measure of escape). No, this is a drama. A workplace drama. A harrowing drama about what it’s like for two young women on their own in a shitty town next to a mine populated by deeply shitty men.
In that sense, what I’m trying to say is that The Royal Hotel has more in common with Niki Caro’s North Country, which showed the harrowing ordeal of women having the temerity to get jobs in the Minnesota mining sector, and be subject to years of sexual harassment and abuse, than it does with something like Wake in Fright.
And of course there’s always the doco someone did which is awfully similar to this, called Hotel Coolgardie, which is just as ugly, and doesn’t have the distance of fiction to reassure us that maybe not all men are pieces of shit.
I also couldn’t help but be reminded of Kate Beaton’s graphic novel Ducks, which is a superb memoir of her time paying off her college loans by working in the Alberta oil sands for a mining company. Her story of an environment drowning in male chauvinism is depressingly similar to this, without the cathartic ending or the last minute lucky escape from sexual assault. Her most depressing realisation years after the fact is that the men who assaulted her probably don’t even think of themselves as rapists at all.
Because, as well, the same problem in the film here isn’t the alcohol. People abuse alcohol in this flick, oh yes, but that’s not what fuels their entitlement mentality. It’s not the isolation, the boredom, group dynamics or urges. It’s not even the desire for sex. It’s that they don’t see women as fully human, and therefore it’s about the power they want to have over them. It’s about the need for certain men, too many men to derive their sense of worth from the domination and humiliation of others, in this case women.
The debate can be had over who is the worst of the men. It could be Billy (Hugo Weaving’s character), who brings a steady stream of women knowing full well what’s going to happen to them. Or it could be Matty (Toby Wallace), who starts off appalling, pretends to be decent underneath the bluster, but then reveals that he’s just as much of an opportunistic rapist as the rest of them.
Or could it be the seemingly gentle and considerate Teeth (James Frecheville), who never says a harsh or sexist word, and who politely asks Liv out on a date, but who is as terrible as the rest, asserting his claim in the end, because he called first dibs, as if Liv is the front passenger seat, or a larger piece of cake. Toxic entitlement = violence and bloodshed.
But, no. Yeah nah, there’s no doubt who the worst is. It’s Dolly (Daniel Henshall). Dolly’s glare, Dolly’s assurance that he will get his way, and his general air of being what the other guys are, but without needing or wanting to hide it anymore. It’s chilling, but he, he’s great at playing this kind of monster. After all, he previously played one of Australia’s worst serial killers in Snowtown, and I still have nightmares about scenes from that film. And any second he was on screen here I was pretty much terrified, including and especially when he’s smiling.
I desperately wanted Hanna and Liv to get away, and be safe. I want them to go somewhere else, like the inner city of Melbourne, like Fitzroy or Newtown in Sydney, where the men are just as shitty and just as likely to harass women, but the coffee is better, and there are more avenues of escape. I want all the Livs and Hannas to be okay, and safe. The Royal Hotel is such a timely reminder that men are still pieces of shit, and that the system is perpetually still rigged against women, where so many of us turn a blind eye. And if you think I’m exaggerating, remember the galling outcomes of recent court cases in Australia where rapists abuse the court system to label the people who accused them of being rapists, as having committed some crime worse than what they themselves have done: in other words, yep, it’s worse to be called a rapist than to be one.
It is insane, but so it has always been. Run, Liv and Hanna, run away, with the flames rising up behind you to mark where you’ve been, run back to the great white north, to safety where you can find it.
8 times every country town in Australia has a Royal Hotel in it out of 10 (well, 244 of them, to be exact)
“You’ll have to be comfortable with a fair amount of male attention.” – define “fair” - The Royal Hotel