Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Movie Review: The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century **** / *****
Directed by: Matthew Rankin.
Written by: Matthew Rankin
Starring: Dan Beirne (Mackenzie King), Sarianne Cormier (Nurse Lapointe), Catherine St-Laurent (Ruby Eliott), Mikhaïl Ahooja (Bert Harper), Brent Skagford (Arthur Meighen), Seán Cullen (Lord Muto), Louis Negin (Mother), Kee Chan (Dr. Milton Wakefield), Trevor Anderson (Mr. Justice Richardson), Emmanuel Schwartz (Lady Violet), Richard Jutras (Father), Satine Scarlett Montaz (Little Charlotte), Charlotte Legault (Angel of Britain), Marc Ducusin (A.A. Heaps).
The wonderfully weird The Twentieth Century is about the younger days of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who would go on to become Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister – serving a number of different stints from the 1920s, through to late 1940s. Written and directed by Winnipeg native Matthew Rankin, the film will certainly call to mind Winnipeg’s most famous weird auteur – Guy Maddin – in terms of its style, and its strange take on the subject matter. But the vision here is still unique to Rankin – and somewhat appropriate to the subject matter itself. Mackenzie King is perhaps most famous for his eccentricities – being a mama’s boy, and hold séances with his dead dog. And yet, in general, it is agreed that he was among the most boring of Prime Minister’s – a man lacking in charisma, who didn’t have many personal friends, and never married. So he was a man with a boring surface, masking strange eccentricities – and that is precisely what the film shows.
You know that this isn’t going to be a typical political biopic in the films first scene – when a young Mackenzie King, played with open faced innocence by Dan Beirne, goes to Toronto’s Hospital for Defective Children, and visits Little Charlotte – who he tells of his political ambitions, and she cheers him on, even as she is slowly dying and knows it. From there, the film traces his journey to try and become Prime Minister – which here involves various competitions in manliness, liking clubbing baby seals, and will end with a bloody battle royal at a hockey rink. It will trace his strange relationship with his mother – played by Louis Negin – and his two “romantic relationships” – neither of which really go anywhere. Eventually, Mackenzie King will realize his goal – although it does involve getting involved with the Governor General (Sean Cullen) – who in this telling is some sort of all powerful, almost cartoon like, power hungry supervillain.
Maddin’s influence on the film is obvious. Like Maddin, Rankin is in love with old movies of the silent era – and he uses the boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio, the sets that deliberately look like sets, or painted backdrops that tell you precisely what they are – almost like a board game aesthetic – a way to go period without having to spend any money on it. And yet, this isn’t quite Maddin’s world either. It is much more interested in the twin aspects of Canadian identity – the surface obsession with normalcy, politeness, and boring behavior, masking deep seeded perversion that fills one with shame.
In many ways, The Twentieth Century is the perfect film to make about William Lyon Mackenzie King – and by extension, Canada as a whole. A straight biopic would be dull – even though he leads Canada through many tumultuous times, and has become regarded as among Canada’s greatest Prime Ministers, if not the best, he was also incredibly boring. You aren’t going to make a film about him like you could about his contemporaries – Truman, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, etc. And yet all that boring surface, bellies something deeply weird underneath. I remember back in the 1990s, when someone was trying to explain the difference between American indie films, and Canadian films, and said that American indies were about things that appeared strange on the surface, but deep down were very normal – whereas Canadian films appeared normal on the surface, but were deeply strange underneath. I think we’ve moved away from that somewhat in the past few decades in Canadian films – but it certainly explains The Twentieth Century – one of the highlight of English speaking Canadian films in recent memory.

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