Movie Review: 'The Twentieth Century'
The Twentieth Century is a strange movie that is not for everyone, but I liked it.
The Twentieth Century is a truly bizarre movie. Set in Canada at the turn of the century that gives the movie its name, The Twentieth Century follows protagonist William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) on his roundabout journey to become Canadian Prime Minister. That’s an accurate thumbnail sketch of the plot of The Twentieth Century but it most certainly does not prepare you for the crazy you will encounter in this brilliantly bizarre movie.
William Lyon Mackenzie King might look like the distant, inbred ancestor of Bob and Doug Mckenzie of Strange Brew fame but he’s somewhat more intelligent than that description indicates. William has been bred since birth to seek a powerful position in the Canadian government. William’s mother, played by actor Louis Negin, has envisioned not just his ascendancy to Canada’s highest office but also his marriage to a Nordic goddess. Mother has painted the woman's portrait in detail, multiple times and hung them over William’s bed for years.
I should say, Mother had the paintings hung as Mother hasn’t left her bed since the day William was born. That’s just a few of the crazy details lingering on the fringe of The Twentieth Century. Writer-Director Matthew Rankin has taken great care to give odd details about all of his characters to make them more memorable while not slowing down the narrative, such as it is, of William’s pursuit of Canada’s highest office.
In this bizarre, otherworldly Canada the Prime Minister is not elected but appointed by a member of some unnamed foreign royalty. But first, candidates for Prime Minister compete in what could fairly be described as reality show competitions, mini-games depicting their patriotism and fortitude. I’m racking my brain for a way to properly describe this competition but I can only say, you will need to see it for yourself, it’s… something.
William’s mother’s visions are somewhat akin to a Monkey’s Paw in terms of coming true but not in the way William had hoped. Upon meeting the woman his mother envisioned as his future bride, William finds Ruby Elliott (Catherine St Laurent) is the daughter of the royal family I mentioned earlier. She also has no interest in William whatsoever. William’s pursuit of becoming Prime Minister is also not so straightforward as he will attain the office but how is a calamity.
Along the way, William must overcome a fetish from his past that threatens his future in politics. Here, Writer-Director Rankin engages in some very David Lynch inspired horror. To say that you may never look at a cactus the same way after seeing The Twentieth Century is a fair statement. It’s super gross and thankfully the most outre of the flights of fancy depicted throughout The Twentieth Century.
So, do I like The Twentieth Century? Well… it’s certainly weird and memorable. The look of The Twentieth Century is unquestionably cool. The film looks like it could have been made at the turn of the century, in the infancy of film except that it’s in color and with sound and CGI backgrounds in place of actual outdoor sets. The film has the otherworldly qualities that early silent film had, reminiscent of the work of George Melies or the early German expressionists. The dusty cinematography would look right at home on an old cinematograph in the early 1900s even with all the modern amenities in play.
The characters are broad and strange but they are memorable, they stick with you. Rankin casts men as women and women as men and the choices feel right just because they mirror how otherworldly the whole movie is. The weirder aspects of The Twentieth Century further evoke the early days of film when big, spectacular visuals from costumes to pancake makeup to elaborately crafted sets stood out in place of dialogue and color.
The Twentieth Century is reminiscent of someone dreaming of the early days of film and that dream colliding with modern technology. In that way, The Twentieth Century is rather brilliant. That said, I would not recommend The Twentieth Century to all audiences. This is undoubtedly a niche movie. Art lovers are the real audience here and I imagine they will enjoy the pretentiousness on display far more than your average movie-going crowd.