Director Matthew Rankin’s debut feature fulfils the promise of his earlier short films. His indescribably strange style is a unique, colourful, vaguely disturbing mixture of realism and grotesque fantasy, suggesting a cross between David Lynch and Walt Disney. Rankin’s freakish takes on topics from war heroes to Nicola Tesla makes him the perfect filmmaker to deal with the early days of former Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. After a successful run of international film festivals, the film was released online and in cinemas November 20.
Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, King was an ordinary, cautious, uncharismatic politician who was successful almost by accident, placed in office repeatedly in spite of inaction and bad calls including a conviction that Adolf Hitler was a harmless philanthropist. After his 50,000-page personal diary was made available following his death in 1950, it emerged that King was also a deeply eccentric man, plagued by self-doubt and personal quirks. He had based his political decisions on advice from the dead obtained during seances; signals from his several dogs, all named Pat; and messages found in tea leaves. It is the information in these diaries that is the basis for Rankin’s film. Rankin read the diary while at university and says he was very much taken by King’s “extreme outpourings” and the unique emotional struggles he went through. The material in the diaries is the primary inspiration for The Twentieth Century.
The film uses a visual style that strongly references early newsreels and Art Deco posters, both establishing the era and providing the consistently unrealistic, exaggerated tone that runs through the entire film. Everything is done in a distinctly outdated way, from the fonts chosen for the credits to the background music, and even including the actual film quality, which replicated the scratchy look and imperfect colour of early 20th century films. Every visual aspect of the film — costume, set, even facial expression and gesture — is like a grotesque parody of the era. Oddest of all is the set design, which alternates between outlandish but fully realised three-dimensional sets, and two-dimensional Deco pastel backgrounds with a simple label indicating the building it represents, a device that adds still more to the film’s sense of unreality. Rankin credits many influences, but particularly German filmmakers and animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger, whose silhouette animation had an impact on this film’s visual approach.
Daniel Beirne plays a young Mackenzie King, prior to his entry into politics. We first encounter him nobly visiting tubercular patients in a facility with the grimly Victorian name of Hospital for Defective Children. He is an earnest, naive young man wracked by self-doubt; his ambitions in parliament derive entirely from his bedridden mother’s mystic visions of him as Prime Minister. (King’s mother is played by male actor Louis Negin in completely unconvincing drag). Although King is driven to obey his overbearing mother in all things, he is also haunted by inadequacy, not only for his lack of experience, but due to guilt over his secret sexual fetishes, a subject which the film covers at great length and with ghastly ingenuity. The film follows King’s exploits as he competes for political power and struggles with romantic disappointments, public humiliation, and professional failure, eventually overcoming obstacles and working his way to his destined position as PM.
Rankin’s approach is sometimes called gonzo or unconventional, but The Twentieth Century goes well beyond such descriptions. The film is bizarre on so many levels it defies description, and barely avoids becoming a freak show in which its peculiarities draw all the attention. Rankin admits the film is not a true biography, despite a foundation of historical fact. He rightly describes the story as being told in “parallel consciousness,” meant to portray King’s early life in the form of “a kind of nightmare that King would have had in 1899,” real events “re-processed into the surreal” as in a dream. In that, Rankin is entirely successful: the plot unfolds in the manner of a dream, with the factual and the symbolic mingling in a chaotic way. King’s terror in the face of political opponents and public events come across very much like common nightmares, in which social awkwardness morphs into genuine danger.
In a fantasy/biography of this kind, actual politics become secondary, but a certain amount of political satire makes its way through the chaos. Rankin finds comedy in much of the humour is very specifically Canadian, in the form of light self-parody, as when the choice of Prime Minister is made by means of a race through an ice maze or a challenge to be effectively passive-aggressive in true Canadian style, or when the heavily deforested British Columbia is represented by a cartoon landscape of endless tree stumps. Rankin addressed the issue of a film being so regional that parts of it will only be well understood by viewers from that area. He feels it is not a problem in a time when international cinema is growing in popularity, remarking: “I think there’s a value in focusing in on stories that might perhaps run the risk of being understood only by one group of people,” and cites examples of cinema from around the world which was very focused on local themes or concerns, but in so doing “managed to touch on something universal.” The film does work as a satire of political concepts and national attitudes that can exist anywhere.
The Twentieth Century is a truly bizarre viewing experience, and a unique approach to filmmaking.