November 27, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Matthew Rankin
Culture Representation: Taking place in in Canada in the late 1910s to early 1920s, the comedic film “The Twentieth Century” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: William Lyon Mackenzie King encounters several personal and professional obstacles in his eventual rise to power as prime minister of Canada.
Culture Audience: “The Twentieth Century” will appeal primarily to people who would be interested in very offbeat films that have satirical commentary about Canadian culture and politics.
The unconventional satire “The Twentieth Century” takes a madcap, sometimes gender-bending look at the rise of the political career of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served as the 10th prime minister of Canada for three non-consecutive terms, from 1921 to 1926; 1926 to 1930; and 1935 to 1948. Viewers don’t have to know any Canadian history to enjoy the movie, although this type of historical knowledge does help. “The Twentieth Century” is not recommended for anyone who isn’t interested in any movie that can be described as “weird.” But for people who are open to seeing a very original and sometimes bizarre retelling of King’s political origins, buckle up for a wild and wooly ride.
Written and directed by Matthew Rankin, “The Twentieth Century” is his feature-film debut, and it makes a bold statement that Rankin doesn’t want to conform to the usual expectations of first-time independent filmmakers. The movie is structured and designed to almost look like a play. Cinematically, “The Twentieth Century” pays homage to the “soft glow” look of movies that were released during the 1910s and 1920s, the era when this story takes place. And the screenplay, which is divided into 10 chapters, goes off in some unexpected tangents that don’t always land well when it comes to comedy, but they’re at least memorable and attempt to show originality.
Dan Beirne portrays King, who goes by the name Mackenzie, as someone who’s not only very ambitious but also a sad sack who’s browbeaten by his domineering mother (played by Louis Negin, in one of several gender-bending roles in the film) into fulfilling her prediction of Mackenzie becoming prime minister of Canada, or at least having a high-ranking position in the Canadian government. In the movie, Beirne looks under the age of 40, when in reality, King (who was a member of the Liberal Party) first became prime minister of Canada at the age of 47. The real King died in 1950, at the age of 75.
Mackenzie’s father (played by Richard Jutras), who is somewhat of an outcast in his own home, lives downstairs while his bedridden, cranky wife lives upstairs. The father’s only companion is a white cockatoo named Giggles, which is an obvious puppet in the movie. Mackenzie has promised his father a prestigious position in the government if Mackenzie rises to a leadership position as planned.
Canada’s colonial histories with the United Kingdom and France are exemplified by the two “loves” of Mackenzie’s life in the story. He falls for a British beauty named Ruby Elliott (played by Catherine St-Laurent), when he first sees her. She’s playing a harp, and Mackenzie has never heard music before. There’s a running joke in the movie that Mackenzie keeps mistakenly calling a harp a “trumpet” because he doesn’t know the difference between the two musical instruments.
Ruby is the daughter of Lord Muto (played by Seán Cullen), the new autocratic governor general of the land. No sooner does Mackenzie try to court Ruby and try to gain clout with Lord Muto, Ruby goes away to fight in the war, which is not named but is presumably World War I. Mackenzie is disappointed that he won’t get to woo Ruby, but he’s got other things that occupy his time until Ruby can return home to Canada.
Although Mackenzie has Ruby very much on his mind, another woman comes into his life who could also become his love interest: a French nurse named Ernestine Lapointe (played by Sarianne Cormier), who works for Mackenzie’s mother but is fired when his mother gets very irritated with Nurse Lapointe for a petty mistake. Ernestine Lapointe is a character that is an obvious nod to King’s real-life political aide Ernest Lapointe. Ernestine is immediately smitten with Mackenzie, but it takes a while for him to warm up to her.
Throughout the story, Mackenzie checks in with a sick, bedridden child named Charlotte (played by Satine Scarlett Montaz), who is in a large hospital room with other sick, bedridden children. At the beginning of the movie, Charlotte asks Mackenzie if he will outlaw tuberculosis when he becomes the leader of Canada. He promises her that he will. Although it’s not stated in the movie, these hospital patients could be part of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was going on at the time this movie takes place.
While Ruby is away at war, Mackenzie enters a political competition for a “test of leadership.” The challenges include ribbon cutting; leg wrestling; waiting your turn; being blindfolded and identifying smells; urinating in snow and spelling out your name in the snow while urinating; endurance tickling; and clubbing of baby seals. (Real animals are not used in the movie.)
Mackenzie ends up tied for second place with Arthur Meighen (played by Brent Skagford), who becomes his political rival for the rest of the movie, as Meighen (another former Canadian prime minister) was a rival to King in real life. The person who won the competition is Henry Albert “Bert” Harper (played by Mikhaïl Ahooja), who cedes his candidacy and recommends that Mackenzie be declared the winner, but the judge in charge refuses this request. In real life, Harper was a journalist who became an ally of King’s.
And now for the really weird stuff: Mackenzie has a shoe fetish. There are some scenes where he masturbates while inhaling into a shoe. For whatever reason, every shoe that he masturbates to looks like a woman’s work ankle boot.
Mackenzie hates seeing shoes that are randomly placed somewhere. When a female neighbor places her work shoes in the hallway, he complains about it being “unsanitary.” And in another scene, when a female construction worker drops one of her shoes near Mackenzie and asks him to return the shoe by tossing it back up to her, he instead runs away with the shoe and masturbates to it.
There’s a character named Dr. Milton Wakefield (played by Kee Chan), who gives Mackenzie a cactus plant. This cactus eventually grows so large that it almost reaches the ceiling of Mackenzie’s bedroom. And every time Mackenzie masturbates and climaxes, the cactus erupts with liquid substances that won’t be described in this review.
In real life, there’s a Canadian politician named Milton Wakefield, who was the Saskatchewan Party member of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan for the constituency of Lloydminster from 1999 to 2007, long after King died. There seems to be no plausible explanation for why there’s a character named Milton Wakefield in the story and why this character is interacting with King, because in real life, King died when Wakefield (who was born in 1939 or 1940) was a child.
One of the more memorable characters in the movie is Lady Violet (played by Emmanuel Schwartz), who is Lord Muto’s eldest daughter and Ruby’s sister. There’s a scene at a dinner party where Lord Muto attempts to play matchmaker with Violet and Mackenzie. Violet is brutally sarcastic and very jaded. She says lines like, “Canada is just one failed orgasm after another.”
Throughout the movie, Rankin keeps a very off-kilter tone that will thrill viewers who like unique wackiness but will turn off viewers who just don’t see the point of many of the movie’s scenes. Beirne carries the movie with a lot of admirable gusto, while the rest of the cast members give fairly good performances. “The Twentieth Century” is not a satire that makes any meaningful political statements about Canada. However, it does have enough oddball unpredictability, sly metaphors and eye-catching visuals that make it hard to look away.
Oscilloscope Laboratories released “The Twentieth Century” in select U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is December 11, 2020.