Reviewed by Cassie Jo Ochoa
Have you ever heard the tale of former Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King? It’s not a well-known tale but it’s full of romance, action, despair, and fetishes. Or maybe not, as director Matthew Rankin has crafted a not-so-standard “biopic” of the relatively obscure politician, turning a man into a myth that comes straight out of a melodrama and turning The Twentieth Century into an odd sort of love letter.
The first significant draw of The Twentieth Century is the stunning cinematography, which deliberately leans into German Expressionism to heighten the elevated madness of Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) during his campaign. Combining that with some gorgeous art design delivers some of the standout moments of the film. An absurdist sequence of selecting the next prime minister is intensified to the point of casual bloodshed, and a marriage ceremony is both absurd and oddly touching. A lot of that should be credited to first-timer Dany Boivin, with an assist by costume designer Patricia McNeil who helps flesh out the surreal world of Canada on the brink of a revolution. Of course, it’s not all just a matter of style, as the substance backs it up. The plot’s beats are simple enough – a man believes it is his destiny to become the leader of his nation, but his flaws expose someone who, at his core, might not be the blessing he thinks he is. Sure, this is unraveled as King’s nose-deep in a shoe, but what audience member can’t relate?
If there’s one flaw to The Twentieth Century, it’s the supporting characters. They are the ones who fall the most victim to absurdism as they get reduced simply to two-dimensional figures. There are glimpses of real characters under the surface, but unfortunately, these very-real figures’ names are barely mentioned as they become stock character types. Catherine St-Laurent and Mikhaïl Ahooja are stand-outs of the supporting cast as they’re given the most opportunity to break out of their shells. Nevertheless, there isn’t a single mediocre performance in the cast.
The Twentieth Century is a film that comes wrapped in blotter paper and propaganda film strips. Watching it feels like you’re listening to a book report from that one kid in the back of the class as he spins a thin story of an actual political figure into a phantasmagorical battle for the soul of Canada. It’s a rare gem of a film that offers its hand and says “trust me,” and it speaks with such confidence that it’s shocking that this is Matthew Rankin’s first feature. Regardless, anyone with even a passing interest in atypical films should check out The Twentieth Century.