The Twentieth Century Review

The biopic genre is one of the more predictable out there. Even outside the musical-biopic subgenre, now so heavily coded that films functionally identical to parodies still get nominated for Academy Awards, there are expectations, and most of them are filled most of the time. Chief among them is fanatical reverence for their subjects, painting them as the most important figures in their respective fields through slick, gauzy, prestige-project filmmaking.

Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, a biopic of legendary Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, doesn’t do any of that. It’s among the least-conventional biopics in existence – and it’s all the better for it. If you didn’t know the backstory, you’d never guess it’s even based on a true story, and if you do know the backstory, you might be furious at the liberal treatment of the subject. But The Twentieth Century being a biopic is merely the icing on the cake of Rankin’s incredible artistry, craft, and utterly bonkers comic and visual sensibility.

The Twentieth Century tells the story of the staunchly Canadian King (Dan Beirne) and his increasingly bizarre, increasingly fictionalised path to the role of Prime Minister. Set at the turn of the titular epoch, against the Boer War into which Canada was roped into by its British imperial masters, it sees King pushed towards the Prime Ministership by a fate foretold by his mother (a drily weird Louis Negin). Facing hurdles set by power-hungry competitors, imperial English warmongers, cactus-fingered debt collectors, and his own compulsive masturbation, King stumbles through his story with a paucity of ability but an abundance of self-belief. Poor guy.

The first thing anyone will notice about The Twentieth Century is its singular visual flair. Shot in 4:3 ratio on 16mm film, the film is composed, lit, and art-directed with old-fashioned techniques, in ways few would touch nowadays. Borrowing from early twentieth century graphic design trends, Rankin’s team has built a cinematic alternate-reality Canada out of simple sets, stark geometric shapes, and odd angles, betraying the director’s roots working with fellow lo-fi Canadian cinematic experimenter Guy Maddin. Never once striving for realism, the film embraces a dreamlike, soundstagey aesthetic that expresses the idea of locations rather than straight-up depicting them. It’s a nonstop wonder to look at. 

That design ethos, like a live-action Gilliam animation fed through a strainer of German expressionism and art deco, feeds into a similarly heightened comic sensibility. From its very first scene, the movie plays hilariously deadpan, growing more and more ridiculous from there even as its characters refuse to acknowledge that it’s happening. This is a movie with Quebecois hand-puppeteered birds; a sinister anti-masturbation clinic; obscure invented Canadian rituals; the odd bit of splattery violence; and thanks to frequently gender-bent casting, lots and lots of wigs and false moustaches. Every laugh segues immediately into anticipatory giggling at what’s to come next.

Like Gilliam’s comedic work before it, The Twentieth Century puts its wild comedy to work as satire of imperial-era Canada. The British, rendered in fascist reds and blacks, bear all the fury of a global power desperately defending its empire through cartoonish war propaganda and sheer force of will. Canada itself is presented as a land of constant winter; its population as proudly, consistently disappointed. The extreme self-deprecation is matched by a quiet affection for the frozen North, its geometric ice floes glittering in old-fashioned lighting setups. In this Canada, Prime Ministers are not the result of elections, but of head-to-head competition in traditional Canadian activities like “butter churning,” “waiting your turn,” and “baby seal clubbing.” It’s all very silly, and speaks to a profoundly self-effacing national culture.

With such a heightened sense of style, and such an absurd sense of humour, it would have been all too easy for The Twentieth Century to descend into farce, yet it never does. Thanks to performances that take their characters seriously, no matter how over-the-top they may be, The Twentieth Century plays as earnestly as it does amusingly. Take nearly any line of dialogue out of King’s mouth, and it’d fit any ordinary political biopic; his speechifying merely takes on additional meaning in context. Surrounded by increasingly bizarre characters, Beirne maintains earnest drive and focus, lending the film an aspirational purity as old-fashioned as the aspect ratio.

With Beirne serving as the film’s moral centre (save for his “solitary vice”), the supporting cast is granted license to let loose with their characters a bit. Seán Cullen is all fire and fury as the red-faced Lord Muto; Kee Chan oozes sinister creepiness as anti-masturbation researcher Dr. Wakefield; Catherine St-Laurent and Mikhaïl Ahooja are paragons of nobility as King’s would-be love Ruby Elliott and would-be competitor Bert Harper. Most memorable of all is Negin as King’s mother, confined to her bed and unhealthily obsessed with her son, who steals the movie whenever he’s onscreen. Bizarre characters, all, and all delightful to watch.

Even with barely any knowledge of the subject matter, I capital-L Loved The Twentieth Century, and after reading up on it, I realised prior knowledge is immaterial. The film’s style is impeccable, its comedic delivery perfectly timed, and its editing sharp and energetic. A biopic by way of expressionistic absurdism, it’s a bold and uproariously funny statement of intent. It’s also, incredibly, a first feature from Rankin, and I can’t wait to see his unique sensibility ascend and flourish. Maybe there isn’t a huge audience for this kind of thing, but the audience that does exist will go crazy for it. I certainly did.

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About the Author

Andrew is a creative professional from New Zealand, living in Montreal, with an American accent, which always confuses people.