New Releases: The Twentieth Century (2020) - Reviewed

Can you imagine if Gormenghast was set in the land of the Tellytubbies? Then imagine that it is some World War II propaganda film and make it Canadian. If that sounds ludicrously eclectic, it is, but not half as off-kilter as it sounds.

The Twentieth Century is the feature directorial debut of Canadian experimental filmmaker Matthew Rankin and it presents a fictional take on former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s (Dan Beirne) rise to power. 

From the start, it is evident that The Twentieth Century is not a film to watch for entertainment purposes, but rather should be enjoyed as an art film that elegantly weaves loosely historical incidents into a fantastical backdrop reminiscent of German Expressionism and surrealism. It is deliberately over the top in imagery and metaphor while introducing one absurdity after another to depict the influence of opposing political figures on the development of King’s political career. 

Most of the film's major characters are indeed loosely based on real Canadian historical figures, but by no means represents them authentically. Matthew Rankin has admitted that he wanted to make a film that resembled something between a really bad acid trip and Canadian heritage…and he succeeded splendidly.

The Twentieth Century earned three Canadian Screen Awards, but it is definitely an acquired taste and would probably only appeal to die-hard historians or die-hard surrealists. Its insanity is the most entertaining part of the film and had it not been for Rankin’s unique approach to the medium, it would have fallen flat. 

What makes The Twentieth Century colorful and interesting is that the actors are not restricted by their gender or nationalities. For instance, no less than three significant characters in The Twentieth Century are cross-gender performances, as well as two Caucasian characters being portrayed by Asian-Canadian actors. This gives the film a tremendously surreal and unbridled aspect wherein the viewer forgets about the politics long enough to marvel at the creativity of the director and players.

The film clearly takes the piss out of Canadian politics and the more general overly dramatic paradigms politicians think they exist on. In fact, The Twentieth Century mocks the delusions of the political stage and its tyrants, while ridiculing the exaggerated propaganda of their agendas. 

Factors addressed by the power play in this film are truly food for thought with today’s global conditioning and social media embellishment, signs of which are plainly obvious in this film. If you have an eye for it, the parallel lines in the preposterous schemes between the Canadian governance in 1899 and 2020’s global governments are starkly visible and that is what makes this film especially relevant.

Other than its clever metaphorical lunacy and original shooting style, The Twentieth Century is not a film you could add to a regular evening’s viewing. It is a quirky, well-executed piece of work that is just not everyone’s acid trip of choice. Save it for an evening of snobbish art film cheese and wine with your local self-righteous film critic or political journalist.

--Tasha Danzig