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REVIEW: The Twentieth Century

This review was provided by Nick White from our Open Call for Film Critics & Writers! Buy your Festival pass or individual tickets to watch both these films on GIFF Online. Please check out Nick’s other review of Tapeworm here!

The Twentieth Century

dir. Matthew Rankin
2019 | Canada | 90 min.

Review by Nick White

The Twentieth Century is the rare sort of film that truly feels beyond comparison. A mesmerizing mash-up of German Expressionism, Soviet Montage, and Canadian Heritage Minutes, it’s as idiosyncratic and unique as any film I’ve ever seen, with writer/director Matthew Rankin creating a wild and kaleidoscopic vision of the life of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Regardless of the film’s faults, it’s impossible not to just admire the sheer audacity of it. In a genre as stale as the biopic, and coming from a country where our own history is so often presented to us by the media in such an idyllic, lifeless way, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a film tell this kind of story with so much originality and fearlessness.

Inspired by the diaries of Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), the film follows his younger years as a deeply insecure man who believes he is destined to, and one day will lead Canada, but Rankin consistently plays fast and loose with reality. The film bounces around between fact and fiction with its surreal aesthetics making everything feel like fantasy, but that’s perhaps the only way to accurately capture the mystique of King, a man who led a strange enough life full of sexual repression and occult rituals that only the most outlandish moments presented here feel too strange to be plausible. Despite his eccentricities though, he was Canada’s longest-reigning Prime Minister and the defining leader of a generation of Canadians, and Rankin admirably attempts to explore that dichotomy here.

As Trevor Anderson’s court justice recounts in the film, Canada’s sentiment, as gifted to us by the Queen, is, “Canadians, in happy days as in sad, disappointed shall you be, always and forevermore. May the disappointment keep us safe from foolish aspirations and unreasonable longing.” Rankin suggests that our collective insecurity, that feeling of perpetual second-bestness that’s defined by our close relationships with the U.K. and U.S., has led us as a nation to consistently settle for mediocrity. Because of that, King, as strange a character as the film builds him up to be, is maybe just the kind of mediocre and insecure man that best represents all of us. He’s far from perfect, but so is this country, as much as other Canadian media might try to skirt around that fact. While the film’s ideas can often get muddled beneath its dizzying aesthetics, and some may wish that Rankin went a bit further in examining King’s controversial politics along with his personal life, ultimately the appeal of the film lies less in its ideas and more in the overwhelming viewing experience it presents.

To watch The Twentieth Century is to be whirled off to a world unlike anything we’re used to seeing. It’s a strange, strange place it takes us to, but the film makes it work thanks to a total stylistic cohesion and commitment to its aesthetic. Everything from its cartoonish and colourful studio sets by art director Dany Boivin, to its ultra-grainy and diffused 16mm cinematography by Vincent Biron, to the deliberately heightened performances of Beirne, Catherine St-Laurent, Louis Negin, Seán Cullen, and the rest work together to create a totally unified vision of Canada circa 1899 as imagined by Rankin. While it’s a far cry from reality it’s also wholly believable because every element of the film’s form is so tightly controlled to reinforce it. The film’s power lies in that kind of complete, all-encompassing bizarreness and the feeling that comes along with being sucked into it.

The tricky thing about a vision that singular and well-realized though is that it will almost certainly not appeal to everyone. In a hypothetical world where we are actually still having in-person screenings, I can easily imagine walk-out from this, with people perhaps being exhausted by its relentless assault of images and sounds, which can get tiring even with its only 90-minute runtime, or turned off by its historical revisionism and incredibly dark humour (seal clubbing and dying children are just a couple of the places it isn’t afraid to go to). It’s the kind of film where you either need to get on its wavelength or abandon ship, and it’s absurd enough that I imagine some won’t ever be able to gel with it, but if you’re willing to let go and see where it takes you it’s the kind of fever dream of a movie that you won’t soon forget.