This year’s Toronto lineup is front-loaded with films directed by actors, and critics for the Los Angeles Times have drawn up a ranked and annotated list of ten of them. Topping that list is Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour. “With an assured mix of righteous anger and sad resignation, the film explores the things men get away with and that women are expected to put up with,” writes Mark Olsen. He could just as well be describing The Royal Hotel, Kitty Green’s follow-up to The Assistant (2019), which Adam Nayman, writing for Cinema Scope, calls “one of the rare Sundance breakouts to earn its all-hands-on-deck hype.”
Green started out not as an actor but as a documentary filmmaker, winning awards for Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013) and Casting JonBenet (2017). Julia Garner was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for her performance as a low-level office worker at the beck and call of a film producer clearly modeled on Harvey Weinstein in The Assistant. “Two features into her career as a fiction filmmaker,” writes Mark Asch for Little White Lies, “it’s safe to call Green a master of the microaggression. She calibrates moments of ambiguity and ominousness, and maps out the subtle ways in which young women are recruited over to the far side of their own boundaries.”
In The Royal Hotel, Garner plays Hannah, an American backpacking through Australia with a friend, Liv (Jessica Henwick). Having run out of money, the pair takes up an agency’s offer to tend bar at a dauntingly remote joint run by Billy, a gruff alcoholic played by Hugo Weaving. Once Hannah and Liv arrive, the male patrons start circling. Green has drawn inspiration from Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, in which he followed two Finnish women in their twenties as they fought off men’s sloppy but persistent advances in a similar bar, and the Hollywood Reporter’s Sheri Linden isn’t the only reviewer to point out that there’s “also an unmistakable throughline between Green’s film, cowritten with Oscar Redding, and Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 psychological thriller Wake in Fright.”
Liv is determined to have a good time, but Hannah, who grew up coping with an alcoholic mother, spots warning signs early on. “A different director might have leaned into the horror elements more,” writes C. J. Prince at the Film Stage. “Green opts to focus on the potential for violence so that Hanna’s concerns might be easily rationalized or explained away. And that’s exactly what Liv does whenever Hanna becomes scared. The men’s boorish, aggressive behavior never crosses the line into physical harm—it’s the ambiguous space, where an unstable status quo allows people to ignore the possibility of things going south, that Green seizes upon to keep The Royal Hotel grounded while pushing levels of discomfort as far as she can take them.”
Woman of the Hour opens with a murder. In 1977, Rodney Alcala, who was later sentenced to death for committing five murders—he eventually confessed to two more, and authorities believe he may have killed as many as 130 people, mostly women—has lured a vulnerable young woman to a photo shoot at a wide-open, deserted location in Wyoming. He strangles her and then resuscitates her so he can kill her again. “It’s a hell of an opening, the kind of thing that heralds the appearance of a major filmmaker, which is exactly what Kendrick proceeds to prove,” writes Jason Bailey at the Playlist, and “her command of mood and technique is present from the jump, as well as her clarity about the kind of director she wants to be.” Writing for Screen,Robert Daniels calls Woman of the Hour “a tremendous directorial debut.”
“In a genre where the gore and gristle of serial killers can become overly fetishized, along with the bodies of the many women they kill,” writes Benjamin Lee in the Guardian, “Kendrick smartly decides how to show us Alcala’s violence and how much to humanize his victims. In the spliced vignettes, we see how Alcala, played with eerie confidence by Daniel Zovatto, weaponized the many privileges afforded to him as a handsome, well-spoken white man, easily inserting himself into lives that he would then cruelly end. The deaths are tough to watch without being explicit, restrained without sacrificing the necessary shock value.”
Alcala actually did appear as a contestant on The Dating Game in 1978. Kendrick plays Sheryl—her real name was Cheryl Bradshaw—the bachelorette who’s given a string of innuendo-laced questions to lob at three eligible men. To the irritation of the host (Tony Hale), Sheryl goes off script, but for all the smarts she reveals, she ends up choosing to go out with Rodney Alcala.
“Kendrick gives herself the role of a crusader who disrupts the phony, sexist spectacle,” writes Gabrielle Marceau for Cinema Scope. “A certain amount of liberties are expected, but Woman of the Hour works so hard to connect its critique of Hollywood chauvinism to Alcala’s crime spree that it steamrolls over the inherent, and more impactful, strangeness of the original taping (just look at Cheryl’s pained smile against Alcala’s Cheshire cat grin.)” Marceau’s bottom line: “Despite some clumsiness, on its own terms Woman of the Hour is competent, compelling, and deeply stressful.”
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