Streaming Review

The Twentieth Century review – a gloriously naughty biopic

Matthew Rankin's debut film is a most unconventional and playful look at the life of Mackenzie King, Canada's tenth Prime Minister

“When you become Prime Minister, will you make tuberculosis illegal?” asks a hospitalised child to future Canadian premiere Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). In Matthew Rankin’s gloriously naughty debut The Twentieth Century, Canadian political history – almost as stuffy, complicated, and miserable as our own – is given a fresh coat of paint. To call it a parody would be diminutive to the breadth of Rankin’s ambition: there is nothing straightforward about this biopic, which presents the tenth Canadian Prime Minister’s life as though it were an inverse Hamilton.

Filmed on 16mm and Super 8, The Twentieth Century invades unremembered nostalgia for an earlier era of cinema just as much as it occupies the same space as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Characters walk across highly stylised cardboard sets that seem to occupy a storybook. With sharp blocks of colour representing mountains or city streets, the heavenly platform that makes up Canada’s past could be the setting of Pixar’s Soul.

Mackenzie King rises the ranks of politics by sparring other figures from Canadian history in a tournament of national pride: games like clubbing baby seals are presented as whack-a-mole, ironising the glorious myths of a violent and colonial past. “Commence urination!” yells a foreman as a dozen politicians attempt to write their name in the snow. When he’s not engaged in macho tug-of-war, he is attempting to turn himself into the perfect family man. Mackenzie King’s lust for Ruby Elliott (Catherine St-Laurent) is matched only by his attraction to his mother (Louis Negin, best known for roles in Guy Maddin’s films, to which this owes some debt). But King ends up engaged to his mother’s nurse (Sarianne Cormier) after a kaleidoscopic scene in which a dozen mirrors show the couple looking every which way, caught in a bad romance.

Beirne plays Mackenzie King with perfect psychosexual angst. He looks like Simon from The Inbetweeners, and is just as petulant, bumbling from sketch-to-sketch with the air of someone awaiting the triumph of history. His frustration reaches a crescendo in an already infamous shoe-sniffing sequence featuring an ejaculating cactus. He then has nightmares of being sent to the “Onanist sanitarium.” Elsewhere, Rankin deflates lewdness with chapter names like “The Dominion School of Nationhood” and “The Solitary Vice,” as though nodding to higher art.

Each element of silliness is contrasted by the gorgeous production design and a genuine effort to reinterpret historical myth-making. The 4:4 aspect ratio may evoke easy nostalgia, but between the almost parodic use of tropes to tell historical anecdotes, and the jagged lurches into psychosexual weirdness, it has more political aims, too. At a nationalist rally, Rankin calls back to Riefenstahl and Griffith. A photograph represents a vast crowd, then close-up of faces give the illusion of scale and personability. It might all seem a bit “Intro to Film Studies,” but the use of his images, put one after another, to propagandise and manipulate mass crowds, recontextualizes the splattering humour and reminds us of the hypnotic appeal of the cinematic form.

The Twentieth Century is now streaming on MUBI.

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