The Twentieth Century (2019)

Writer/director Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century both is and is not a biopic of Canadian statesman William Lyon Mackenzie King.

King was a towering figure in the first half of the twentieth century. The leader of Canada’s Liberal Party from 1919 to 1948, he would become Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister over three consecutive terms – 1921–1926, 1926–1930 and 1935–1948. Politically astute if personally uncharismatic, he laid the foundations for Canada’s welfare state while maintaining good relations with the French-Canadian population – and although he may, as his diaries reveal, secretly have admired Adolf Hitler in the Thirties, once the Second World War was underway he successfully contributed to the Allied effort while keeping the Canadian economy afloat.

Played here by Dan Beirne, King certainly is the subject and protagonist of Rankin’s debut feature, but the film’s story unfolds in 1899 – one year before the century of its title would actually begin, and also one year before King’s first foray into politics as (unelected) Deputy Minister at the Canadian government’s new Department of Labour. The story also appears to take place entirely in the young man’s mind, as an imagined history before the event – a dystopian dream of accession in a Dominion ruled as much by shame, frustration and Disappointment (with a capital D) as by men with very peculiar proofs of their manhood. For this is a retrofuturist fantasy of the life lying ahead for the young King, conjured as a fragmented pantomime of Canada’s (and the world’s) twentieth-century history – and going full Maddin on its perversion of the Canadian character. 

The Twentieth Century shows King as a ‘milksop’ propelled towards the Prime Ministry by the visions of his bedbound, domineering Mother (Louis Negin). Here King is a conflicted man. For he is torn between his foreseen fate with Ruby Eliott (Catherine St-Laurent) and his love for Nurse Lapointe (Sarianne Cormier), between his aspirations for high public office and his private fetishes, between the bellicose fascism of the British Empire and the peace cult of the French independence movement (led by Annie St-Pierre’s J. Israël Tarte). All these tensions create a kaleidoscopic cartography of the events that would later dominate King’s life.

Ruby and her sister Violet  (played by Emmanuel Schwartz here) were in fact only teenagers in 1899. Arthur Meighan (Brent Skagford) did not become a political rival to King until years afterwards, and Henry Albert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja) was a civil servant and friend who never in fact competed with King for the Prime Ministry (although he did indeed die, in 1901, trying to rescue a woman who had fallen into icy water). The Canadian Governor General Lord Minto – on whom Ruby’s father Lord Muto (Seán Cullen) is based – was in fact a benign figure rather than the Machiavellian war-mongering, genocidal dictator that he is here. Canadian statesmen do not vie for office in bizarre games-like trials of their prowess, and there is no evidence (as far as I know) that King was a compulsive podophile, in repressive denial of his own boot-focused desires. None of this matters, as The Twentieth Century is less a faithful history than an imaginarium of the national psyche, looking forward fancifully to the century to come – with Muto not only embodying Canada’s colonialist, imperialist foundations, but foreshadowing the rôle that Hitler would later play both in King’s life as Prime Minister and in the global upheavals of the Twentieth Century

Promising in its opening text to show “the Obsessions and Bewilderments recorded in the young politician’s Diary, at the dawn of an Extreme Age”. this chronicle (in ten parts) of a history foretold is also a camp allegorical remix of a nation’s psychological detritus, where every future leader is a mamma’s boy, every political bid a lurid sporting melodrama (and a contest with nature), and every Canadian defective and deviant. Shot in Academy ratio on expressionist cardboard sets with gender-blind and race-blind casting, and deliriously funny (in both senses), The Twentieth Century is a beautifully stylised, wildly weird dash back and forth through Canadian mores, as the icy floes conceal all manner of hot passions – as well as the odd killer narwhal. As we watch King struggle – and ultimately fail – to escape his destiny, we also see the coming of age of “a leader of tomorrow”, and the queering of an entire country.

© Anton Bitel