Film Review: Canadian History Gets a Manic Twist in Matthew Rankin’s Arthouse Comedy ‘The Twentieth Century’ ★★★

Matthew Rankin writes and directs arthouse historical comedy The Twentieth Century, chronicling the rise of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King with a fictitious, surrealist slant. In part paying homage to German Expressionist classics and part-Monty Python lampooning with stylistic flavours of Guy Maddin, propaganda films, and John Waters inspired filthy-campery.

The Twentieth Century takes us to Toronto 1899 where young politician Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) dreams of becoming the Prime Minister of Canada. In order to achieve his dream he must get a handle on his fetishistic obsessions and the extreme expectations of his bed-ridden mother. Throw in a war-mongering Governor-General and a dilemma between romance with a British soldier or a French nurse, and a battle against several eager young Canadian politicos for the role – and you have a sense at the chaotic battle that faces King.

Striking a real aesthetic punch, The Twentieth Century deserves plaudits for its distinctive aesthetic style, indebted to the likes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis. Inventive art direction from Dany Boivin plays with classic art deco tropes, utilised brilliantly by Rankin and cinematographer Vincent Biron. These impossible sets and artistic backdrops help create a lavish, outlandish canvas for this manic tale to unfold upon. A slight grain in the camera lens acting as a period gauze and careful selection of colour palettes further the rich visuals of The Twentieth Century, creating something of a curious wonderland that gives this manic spin-on Canadian history a woozy and otherworldly dreamlike tone.

Within this distorted world, Rankin fills his narrative with a mix of distorted camp and madcap screwball humour. Heaving with a brooding sense of melodrama and delivered with a wholehearted bravado from the cast allows us to buy into the zaniness of Rankin’s creation. Dan Beirne plays the role emphatically straight to the point of ridicule – whether it be having to smooch his Mother (actor Louis Negin in drag), club cuddy toy seals, burrow his face in high heeled shoes, or watching an erect cactus ejaculate, the actor has a fearsome commitment which heightens the humour. Negin is delightful – channelling a high camp melodrama with echoes of Douglas Sirk and Powell and Pressburger in his defiant delivery, whilst Seán Cullen’s General Lord Muto packs the camp of a late Orson Welles turn (think more 1972’s Necromancy than 1941’s Citizen Kane).

Rankin has fun playing with exaggerated notions of Canadian identity, centring round the unofficial motto of “Do more than is your duty. Expect less than is your right.” The prissy, passive aggressive King enduring contests including leg wrestling, tree identifying, baby-seal clubbing, and waiting one’s turn in line adds to the fun of this send up to the Great White North Man.

By the end of The Twentieth Century you may find yourself growing numb to the high-intensity silliness and unrelenting artificiality of the proceedings – with ninety minutes being an apt duration for the feature. Thankfully there is much to be admired in the aesthetics and Rankin and his ensemble’s commitment to this madcap vision.