REVIEW: The Twentieth Century [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: November 20th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Oscilloscope
    Director(s): Matthew Rankin
    Writer(s): Matthew Rankin

Sure as a winter’s day in springtime.

It would seem by most accounts that William Lyon Mackenzie King was a middle-of-the-road politician who neither rocked the boat nor steered it towards any particular acclaim. That’s not to say he wasn’t popular—three non-consecutive terms as Prime Minister of Canada aren’t won without appeal. He just wasn’t as internationally revered as his World War II counterparts Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. To read about his legacy is to therefore see a man firmly entrenched in a gray area our incendiary day and age rarely if ever provides. Now you’re either black or white. Your black is my white. My white is your black. And there is no in-between. Gray has become light black or dark white. Serving the people has been replaced by serving your people.

If that description (reductive and mostly baseless considering I’m not Canadian and thus have no real authority to confirm what I read) of King doesn’t make him seem like the sort of figure who demands the cinematic treatment, writer/director Matthew Rankin might actually agree. That’s why he hasn’t actually given King that treatment at all. Rather than see his impact upon his country and present it as a straight biography, Rankin has culled through the former Prime Minster’s early diaries to find a much more intriguing through-line. He calls The Twentieth Century a nightmare—one King would have had at the turn of the century while just twenty-five years old. Instead of what he did while in power, this tale revolves around what he’d do to get it.

The topic therefore transcends its subject. Whether or not Rankin picked King (Dan Beirne) doesn’t matter where it concerns the central conceit because its love story of a man and his ambition is pretty much a universal experience for every politician. How far will your confidence take you? How far will your scruples? Have you been told by those you love that you’re destined for greatness? Are you willing to trample upon the people who risk everything for your victory if betraying them is exactly what you need to achieve it? These are the questions everyone in public office must weigh every single day as new problems are confronted. Some have the mettle to meet them head-on while others tread lightly so as not to expose ruinous secrets.

As Rankin tells it, King considered himself a bit of both in his youthful fantasies and horrors. I don’t know how much of what we see on-screen is a direct result of what he wrote in his diaries or a product of the filmmaker’s imagination with his vulnerabilities and insecurities as a foundation, but it truly does play out like the type of visions we all have during a restless slumber infiltrated by crippling anxiety. That’s where we find ourselves trapped behind a hyperbolic façade of reality—specifically built for success with impossible events unfolding as they only could in a dream before the rug is ripped from under our feet to commence a never-ending descent to oblivion as everything we hoped for smashes to pieces.

Add a world of surreal absurdity with earnest acts of nonsense carrying the importance of life or death scenarios and sprinkle in a dark fetish to keep our cutthroat hero on the fringes of respectability so men and women with booming voices and authoritative control can laugh him out of a positions he’s qualified to hold and you start understanding the sheer insanity of Rankin’s creation. King deserves a lot of it too. He isn’t some saint contending with monsters. He’s fine denigrating his father (Richard Jutras) to uphold his mother (Louis Negin) as a prescient kingmaker God. He’s fine toying with good people’s emotions (Sarianne Cormier‘s Nurse Lapointe) if a better alternative comes around that might, barely if at all, play to his personal or political advantage.

These traits are where choosing King as his subject does matter. Not only does it allow Rankin to pull from his protagonist’s relationship with his mother to create an emotionally incestuous dynamic, but he’s also afforded the room to satirize Canada itself by rendering Winnipeg a cesspool of deviants, Vancouver a freshly felled land of tree stumps, and the nomination process for candidacy through the “Fury Party” en route to “Dominion Leader” a goofy Olympics-style series of feats that mock Canadian politeness and revel in the clubbing of seals. As Rankin states in the press notes,The Twentieth Century is as much about portraying his version of King as it is pulling down the curtain of “decency” his country has proudly and falsely worn for decades.

That he adopts an aesthetic with numerous inspirations—but namely fellow Winnipeg-native Guy Maddin—only helps this cause by placing what’s already a very niche topic into very singular packaging. Rankin is upping the “Canadian-ness” of the piece with each aspect of his production, including the struggle between conquering strength (King’s Ontario-based Fury party as led by Seán Cullen‘s Lord Muto) and idyllic utopia (the Quebecois opposition led by Annie St-Pierre‘s Joseph-Israël Tarte) heading towards the inevitable negation or reaffirmation of a national disappointment that’s loomed as a large cloud above each province. There’s also Ruby Elliott (Catherine St-Laurent) and Brett Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja) selflessly lending a helping hand despite their own demise; white geometric sets merging industrial oppression with iceberg chic; and a not-so-friendly neighborhood narwhal.

The entire cast leans into the hyper-real tone of nightmarish farce whether formidable characters (Negin, Cullen, and Kee Chan‘s Dr. Milton Wakefield) or a put upon supporting roles yearning for King’s success (Jutras and Cormier). When you have young Satine Scarlett Montaz‘s Charlotte making light of her tuberculosis diagnosis, Emmanuel Schwartz‘s Violet facilitating a footwear fetish, and St-Laurent constantly reminding King that she plays a harp and not a trumpet, the room for memorably unique comedy is boundless. And through it all is Beirne as the consummate straight man desperately pursuing a dream that’s more intent on drowning him than lifting him up to the heights he’ll inevitably reach. His King simply has to stop pretending he’s more than a regular, well-meaning citizen surrounded by knife-brandishing opportunists.

courtesy of Oscilloscope

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