It’s like the old saying goes: “A spoonful of absurd, horny, 1980s futurist, German Expressionist, brazenly revisionist filmmaking helps the Canadian political history go down”. The subject of Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century sounds dry on paper — the story of how a young man named William Lyon Mackenzie King became the Canadian Prime Minister in 1899 — but with stunning inventiveness, and a style that offers uninterrupted visual pleasure, Rankin actually makes King’s tale fun. Having studied Québec history at university, Rankin’s knowledge of his subject enables him to confidently take creative liberties with the truth: his understanding of the historical facts is clear, even as he sends them through the looking-glass.
In Rankin’s interpretation, King (Dan Bierne, Fargo) is a foolish, easily manipulated man, but one filled with confidence about his future in politics — largely thanks to his mother (an excellent Louis Negin), whose strong influence over him is distinctly Oedipal. Recounting her premonitory dreams to King, she convinces him that he is not just worthy of success, but destined for it. But in The Twentieth Century, the path to being Prime Minister involves convoluted trials and competitions — from ribbon-cutting and pissing in the snow to “leg-wrestling” and churning butter — and culminates in a showdown that evokes midnight madness and The Lady from Shanghai (1947) simultaneously. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, King at the same time grapples with the secret of his “solitary vice” — a lifelong fetish for old, smelly shoes that threatens to destroy him and his political aspirations. This paragraph only scratches the surface of this film’s fantastical elements — we haven’t even gotten to the animatronic parrot yet, not to mention the ejaculating cactus (ejactus?) in King’s bedroom.
Much of this kind of absurdism only lands if you play it straight. For the tone of a film like The Twentieth Century to work, every cast member needs to be game — and thankfully, they are. Perfectly-cast supporting actors are completely in tune with Rankin’s vision — Ruby’s (Catherine St-Laurent) terrible British accent feels entirely purposeful; Negin’s maniacal Mother is scene-stealing; Satine Scarlett Montaz plays tuberculosis-ridden orphan Little Charlotte with adenoidal sentimentality straight out of an old-Hollywood melodrama. And at the center of it all, Beirne’s performance imbues King with a nervous desperation that, even amidst all this ridiculousness, adds a sense of pathos to his travails.
Rankin’s loose, playful approach to historical accuracy also extends to casting, with Asian-Canadian actors playing the roles of two White Anglo-Saxon Protestant characters, Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja) and Dr. Wakefield (Kee Chan). Likewise, Louis Negin is not the only man in a dress in this film — gender is a wonderful source of play throughout. As its poster proclaims, “Men play women and women play men!” Take politician Joseph-Israël Tarte (Annie St-Pierre), who is here portrayed not as a regular 1800s dude, but as a soft-spoken angel who serves the memorable look of wireframe glasses, ragdoll braids, and bright red lipstick under a painter’s-brush mustache. Likewise, Emmanuel Schwartz plays ‘Lady Violet’, while King’s father (Richard Jutras, simultaneously down-trodden and petulant) is constantly wearing frilly aprons for no discernible reason.
Unlike the icy serenity of Toronto and Québec, where most of the film takes place, Rankin’s hometown of Winnipeg is depicted as a dangerous, vice-ridden slum, where bones lie on the ground, children smoke cigarettes, and strangers jump out of nowhere to offer you heroin — a jab at the way Winnipeg is perceived by wealthier and more powerful figures like King. Rankin’s stylised sets are not simply aesthetic flourishes, but means of emphasising what he calls “the artifice of nationhood” — their constructedness reminds us that the nation of Canada itself is, like all nations, a construct, and that political figures like King play a key part in shaping its cultural self-image.
The artistic direction itself is impressive enough — frankly, I would have been content to watch those long shots of King walking from location to location in Rankin’s frosty dream-world, mesmerized by the colour blue and the sound of shoes crunching on the ice, for a full 90 minutes — but to top it all off, it’s well-written, well-performed, and fantastically edited. There is likely a unique delight to be found in this film for local Canadian viewers, but by no means do we need to know a single thing about Canadian history to enjoy the phantasmagorical ride.
The Twentieth Century is available to watch on Crave and in selected United States theatres from November 20, 2020.
Ivana Brehas is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm, Australia. She has written for Dazed, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at http://www.ivanabrehas.com.