by Ken Bakely
A wild work of satire and surrealism, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century uses a thoroughly irreverent approach to discuss the construction of national identity and the mythologization of history. It’s a blindingly absurd imagination of the early life of William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), who served as prime minister of Canada on three separate occasions, with his cumulative tenure comprising 20 of the 27 years between 1921 and 1948. Such impactful figures are often retroactively perceived as somehow more than human – or at least existing in a parallel plane to the human history that we inhabit today. Rankin turns this detachment on its head, setting the story in 1899, and placing a 25-year-old King and his historical contemporaries in a quite literal alternate universe: one of whooshing, extravagant, Expressionist design, where bright and vivid colors light up blocky sets with physics-defying features and wonky angles. It’s a world where a rising Mackenzie King – whose path to greatness has been foretold by his bedridden mother (Louis Negin) – must realize his destiny by competing in a series of Pythonesque competitions to prove his capacity for leadership (among them: signing your name in urine, cutting ceremonial ribbons as elegantly as possible, and learning to passive-aggressively clear your throat those who push ahead of you in line). But his training is complicated by his messy love life, political rivals who strive for the same glory, and the issues caused by his startlingly uncontrollable fetish for women’s boots.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s energy is very chaotic, but the particulars of Rankin’s approach mostly keep it from becoming too difficult to grasp. There’s an internal logic to the frenzy. It’s apparent in each deliberately shocking new twist to Rex King or his surroundings, and in every exchange of peppery dialogue, delivered with straightfaced dedication from the roundly game cast. There’s also a clear point to it all: from the film’s start, in which King assures an ailing child at a “Hospital for Defective Children” that he will outlaw her tuberculosis as prime minister, The Twentieth Century takes an acidic and sardonic route in approaching the tropes and assumptions of how common preconceptions of history are catalogued. Rankin uses the overriding motif that this Mackenzie King has believed from birth that he has been imbued with destiny’s ultimate blessings, and that his rivals were those who do not recognize this objective reality. It’s not done to make him look delusional; rather, it’s a sign that our protagonist lives through self-evident fatalism, and has simply never had reason to think otherwise. He idly chats with Ruby (Catherine St-Laurent), the daughter of the governor-general (Seán Cullin), inviting her to his certain-to-be-upcoming electoral victory party by mentioning that maple-walnut ice cream will be served. The event is so obvious to him that the only remaining detail to be discussed is granular in nature. This kind of self-ordination is implicitly taken to certain retroactive ideations of the past, and Rankin more or less argues that throwing into an oddball dreamscape – with absurdist foundations and deliberately juvenile reasoning – is the clearest way to point out how reductive and silly such assumptions are.
It’s quite a thing to take in. There’s a degree to which you’re deliberately submerged in the material, with Rankin making a practice of throwing everything up against each other at an incredible speed. Each new development is a little stranger than the last, by virtue of it being further integrated into an already bemusing stew of themes, sequences, and running gags. At times, The Twentieth Century’s layered visualizations and electric fury can build a little too thickly. The movie deliberately eschews any traditionally recognizable rhythm to the proceedings, and it can thus feel a little overstretched in some parts, as much as it can feel like it’s steamrolling over everyone and everything in others. But considering how bold and unrelenting the film is as a whole, it’s to the movie’s immense credit that so much of the rest of the movie works as well as it does. The ensemble’s agile and acute performances reach the script’s underlying commentary with ease, and the deliberate anarchy of the production design is never discombobulating for its own sake; its theatrical qualities come with a neat sense of placement and scope, and it’s all captured cleverly through Vincent Biron’s eccentric, 16mm cinematography. Rankin and company have crafted something truly fascinating. From a basis in fact, however loose, The Twentieth Century plows through multiple storms of its own design, but emerges as a confident, abstract snapshot of a nation’s fledgling days in forming its self-definition, as well as an incisive deconstruction of the way that these narratives about historical figures are both created and canonized by a wider culture.