It is a rare thing to see a film so packed with creativity and vision as the film The Twentieth Century. A throwback to the grand scale biopics of the studio era, Matthew Rankin‘s retro fever dream blends disparate elements to create an entirely new and immediately familiar movie that breaks new ground in cinematic storytelling. Blending elements of German expressionism, camp, WW2 spy thrillers, and puppetry, we follow Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) and his journey to lead the Dominion of Canada in 1899 on the cusp of a new era. In his way is Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja), a fellow candidate and pretty boy, the threat of the Boer party whose freedom-loving rhetoric threatens the status quo of the country, and a secret fetish for women’s footwear that could thwart his pristine image.
The story opens with King visiting a home for defective children the night before his election. Here he meets Ruby Elliot (Catherine St-Laurent), an angelic figure who plays the harp for children in the cavernous home. Smitten, Mackenzie visits his dictatorial Mother (Louis Negin) who proclaims that she has foreseen in a dream that Ruby and Mackenzie are destined for love and marriage. With promotional banners gilded, mass-produced buttons made for supporters, and the promise of maple-walnut ice cream for everyone upon his victory, Mackenzie makes his bid for power.
Of course, there are things to overcome. In a series of Monty Pythonesque challenges, the candidates for Prime Minister must leg wrestle, club baby seals ala whack-a-mole, and pee their name in the snow with expert peenmenship. Then, once the results are in and the position has been awarded, Mackenzie King finds himself divided on multiple levels. Lord Muto Lord Muto (Seán Cullen), demands a brutish, aggressive approach to leadership while Mackenzie’s loyalties to his country are being challenged. Then there is his love of two women and his secret fetish for footwear. Dr. Milton Wakefield (Kee Chan) is enlisted at one point to fit Mackenzie with steampunk contraptions that stave off erections culminating in a riotously absurd dinner scene that must be seen to be believed, much less understood.
The entire cast is spot on and fully in such with director Rankin’s vision. Melodrama, deadpan humor, and not a hint of insincerity, Beirne‘s Mackenzie is a nebbish petulant whose performance seems ripped from the dawn of talkies. Negin is absolutely hilarious as the bedridden matriarch who prophesies from beneath her mop of goldylocks. Sarianne Cormier is wonderful as the wide-eyed nurse with an undying love for Mackenzie. These performances are matched with perfect production design and art direction by Dany Boivin. The look of the film is brazenly creative and works so perfectly that it sells the conceit of the entire film.
Still, credit must be given to writer-director Matthew Rankin whose familiarity with Canada’s history and distinct, audacious vision makes all of these odd pieces fit so perfectly. Seriously, who would have thought that a send-up of 1930’s cinema and a driving synth-pop score by Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux and Peter Venne could be a thing? It takes that chance and makes things work. The result is creative genius.
The Twentieth Century is easily one of the best of the year for me simply on the chances it takes and how the gambles pay off. This is silly, Avant grade cinema that isn’t for everyone, but if this IS for you, man oh man you are in for a treat.
8 out of 10
Arriving in Virtual Cinemas on November 20, 2020