It’s possible that a working knowledge of Canadian culture and politics might annotate the sheer joy of watching Matthew Rankin’s THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, but a lack of same in no way diminishes it. This rapturously surreal romp through fascism, propaganda, and the perils of love delights in its arch embrace of retro-futuristic artifice and vintage melodrama as it tracks the tumultuous, and entirely fictitious, early career of actual historical figure William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) as he fulfills his mother’s dream of him becoming Canada’s prime minister. Rankin has far more important things to do here than cling to mere fact.
King, here imagined as a milquetoast of a mama’s boy, spouts platitudes as he promises a dying tubercular child (Satine Scarlett Montaz) maple-walnut ice cream, and cheerfully proves his mettle at clubbing seals in the competition to land the job of prime minister. He sees beyond the present, with an expression that reflects his vision of the grandeur of his country that waves its flags with insistent jingoism as it warns its populace not to expect to much, but to give it their all. In one character’s striving for a goal he never set for himself, a nation’s feelings of inadequacy are lampooned, and the parody of political contests decided by a blue-ribbon committee, and based strictly on style rather than scoring (in dead seal pups, for example), makes its point all too cogently. And that’s before Queen Victoria’s Viceroy, Lord Muto (Seán Cullen), tempts and taunts our putative hero with imperial condescension and two daughters, each of which is parable of romance gone horribly, horribly wrong.
There is a great deal to unpack here, from King’s mother (Louis Negin, one of several cross-gender castings) shut away in a canopied bed behind a locked door to avoid the horrors of a second conjugal visit from King’s impecunious father (Richard Jutras), to the selflessness amour fou felt for him by his mother’s nurse (Sarianne Cormie), whose noble purity of spirit is matched only by her abilities to render scale drawings and bake cakes. The humor takes no prisoners, be it a hagiographic depiction of Quebec, to the way people get around the stylized sets in giant Canadian geese. This is commentary that is merciless and razor sharp in its gleefully silly, color-saturated hyperbole, using the Boer War as its exemplar of herd mentality, and a spewing cactus, a gift from the mysterious Dr. Wakefield (Kee Chan) to externalize King’s self-loathing for his, ahem, solitary vice that requires used female footwear, the ranker the better.
Yet there is in King, this version at least, something sympathetic for his having been used so badly by those who shaped him. He evinces the nobility optimism and the innocence of believing that the world is as it should be. Shades of Candide and the best-of-all-possible-worlds excuse for self-righteous acquiescence in the face of obvious contradictions.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is rife with visual puns, overpowering lusts (not necessarily hormonal), and ribald, rollicking political satire. Yet, and this may be the most remarkable thing, there is in every oneiric, image and every poke in the metaphorical rib, even in the send-up of that most sacred of Canuck institutions, ice hockey, Rankin’s unmistakable affection for Canada. Surrender to the contradiction.