Anyone who’s ever taken a speech and debate class knows it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. If you look good and sound good, the content of your speech is almost irrelevant. So let’s say someone told you a filmmaker made a movie about the rise of a Canadian politician in 1899 who believes himself destined to become the Prime Minister but learns a harrowing lesson in the process. You may or may not find that particularly interesting. But if that same story comes in the style of early-1900s German Expressionism and has surrealist imagery, absurdist humor, and several gender-swapped characters for no reason, you might sit up and take more notice. That, friends, is what Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century delivers in spades.
Canada native Rankin has made several similarly styled short films featuring expressionistic interpretations of historical figures; for his first feature film, he turned his sights to William Lyon Mackenzie King, who became Canada’s tenth Prime Minister in three non-consecutive terms between 1921 and 1948. The Twentieth Century is a highly fictionalized (read: almost totally fictional) account of the young Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne)’s career, in 1899. Several other real-life political figures get a remix, but that’s not super important to the the enjoyment of the movie. King’s bed-ridden, domineering mother (Louis Negin) has dreams that her son will be the leader of the Dominion of Canada, but he finds several roadblocks standing in his way, most of which stemming from him just not being all that likable.
The tone of the movie is somewhere between broad, absurdity and wry melodrama; more than one piece written after the movie’s TIFF debut in 2019 compared it to a mix of Monty Python and Guy Maddin. These feel fair enough; the opening scene finds King sitting at the bedside of a tubercular young girl in an orphanage, “comforting her” with assurances that when he becomes PM, he’ll outlaw the disease. Another early scene finds King and other would-be political leaders reciting the Canadian oath:
“May the disappointment keep us safe from foolish aspirations and delusional longings.”
Another later in the same scene urges all civil servants to…
“Do more than is your duty, expect less than is your right.”
On his path toward infamy, King falls in love (and is prophesied to marry) Lady Ruby Eliott (Catherine St-Laurent), the beautiful daughter of Lord Muto (Sean Cullen), the Big Brother-esque Governor General of Canada. Sadly, she’s engaged to Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja), who’s also his better in statesmanship. But a little thing like that wouldn’t stop King from rising through the ranks, right? Well, his strange and all-encompassing fetish for sniffing the inside of lady’s shoes might; King at one point goes on a bender to a shoe-themed sex club before running into the supremely sinister Dr. Wakefield (Kee Chan) who wants to “cure” him or he’ll tell Lord Muto the tawdry truth.
It’s weird, friends. This is a weird movie. And it’s perhaps most weird in the fact that it strives toward some kind of deep emotional arc the further along we get. The visuals and acting style all tend toward pure spoof, but the resolution is quite dark, nigh apocalyptic. All of the sets and the hazy color photography give us the feel of a chilly Eastern European film from the early days of cinema. These heighten some other unique directorial choices. Any animal in the movie is a hand puppet or a person in a costume; a few characters are played by people in obvious drag; there’s even David Lynchian cutaways when King’s on a shoe-sniffing tare. These all paint a world unlike any you’re likely to see this or any other year.
Ultimately, however, The Twentieth Century runs dangerously close to overstaying its welcome. Each new setting or shift in King’s fortunes feels like a fresh new film is beginning—we even get intertitle chapter headings—but at 90 minutes it’s just slightly too baggy to truly work with the surreality it’s presenting. The homages work beautifully, the performances (especially Beirne and Cullen) are outstanding, and the comedy is gloriously Canadian; but they might all be better suited in a short, or even a 75-minute feature.
Even so, The Twentieth Century proves that a vision and a style can make any story feel like it absolutely must be told.
3.5 out of 5
Featured Image: Oscilloscope