The Twentieth Century


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Twentieth Century
"Every cherished symbol of Canadianness is here, from maple walnut ice cream to a fleetingly glimpsed but narratively influential narwhal."

Let’s face it – to most of the world’s cinemagoers, Canadian political history is unlikely to seem like the most exciting subject for a 90 minute midnight movie. But then, nobody ever saw it presented like this before.

With a doting drag queen mother who dresses like Baby Jane and a father who lives a solitary life except for puppet cockatoo Giggles, this is true northern hero William Lyon MacKenzie King – or Rex, as he prefers to be called – as he has never hitherto been seen. It will not take you long to develop a suspicion that liberties have been taken with the historical record – but isn’t that true of every biopic, to some extent? All this happened long ago, just before the arrival of the 20th Century. Can we say with confidence that he wasn’t still being breast fed when he went into politics, that he didn’t sneak off to the fleshpots of Winnipeg to indulge a shameful shoe fetish, that his mother didn’t have a vision revealing that he was to become Canada’s greatest ever politician and so determine his destiny?

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Initially, the film’s young hero (played by Dan Beirne) doubts that vision himself. He has found Ruby (Catherine St-Laurent), the woman he is sure must become his wife, but she turns out to be the daughter of Lord Muto, commander in chief of the great Disappointment, and she is quite unwilling to entertain the idea of a relationship with him. He has worked hard to build up political skills like butter churning, seal clubbing and identifying different kinds of wood by their smell, but in the contest to see who will become Prime Minister he is overlooked in favour of insufferably decent Trudeau lookalike Bert (Mikhaïl Ahooja), who supposedly clubs seals with more style. How can he compete in this unfair world?

Perfectly capturing the studied coolness and innate petulance associated with the historical King, Beirne manages to attract sympathy for his obnoxious anti-hero by focusing on that unfairness and showing us how lost and hurt he feels as he comes to recognise the gulf between his dreams and reality. He’s at risk of being the straight man in a cruel comedy, but his determination to fight back will have viewers rooting for him nonetheless. Although tempted to give up and start a new life under the proto-hippy Government of Love in Quebec, he is tenacious in pursuit of his well-trained ambitions, and ultimately willing to go to lengths that even those closest to him fail to anticipate.

“Canada is just one failed orgasm after another,” confides one member of the upper classes whose salacious interest in the nervous young politician threatens to put him in a compromising position. There’s a sense here of national pride rooted in unthinking cruelty and painful self-consciousness which is, in its way, rather endearing, and the film is played out on a wonderful collection of Art Deco sets that recall those used by Fritz Lang. Responding to the command “In the name of the Sovereign, do more than is your duty,” men lined up on parade chant “Expect less than is your right.” Every cherished symbol of Canadianness is here, from maple walnut ice cream to a fleetingly glimpsed but narratively influential narwhal. Earnest liberalism and habitual fascism blend with borrowed notions of class and a yearning for change that seems unlikely to come, even – perhaps especially – if Rex is victorious.

Combining high camp with a deep understanding of the theatrics of early cinema, The Twentieth Century is tightly styled and sometimes indulges itself a little too much, but its astute deadpan comedy and careful character-building always get it back on track. It’s not for everyone but it’s a film destined to inspire some viewers with evangelical passion, and it will no doubt find a loyal cult following. One thing is certain: you wil never see another film like it.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2020
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A faux biopic that charts the roller coaster rise to power of famed Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.
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Director: Matthew Rankin

Writer: Matthew Rankin

Starring: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St-Laurent

Year: 2019

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Canada

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