The Twentieth Century: Canadian History as a Heady Playpen OR The Delirious Debut of Matthew Rankin

There’s an endless array of adjectives and comparisons that come to mind with Matthew Rankin’s debut feature The Twentieth Century. Even before having the good grace to watch the film, the very trailer conjures up a bevy of images that indicate a dense fog of misty expression, ironic humor, gender-bending, and a very specific brand of conscious cinematic awareness in its referential construction. And that’s just the trailer, so what about the very loaded experience that is actually watching this fog-drenched cloak of gooey self-aware cinema?

The Twentieth Century: Canadian History as a Heady Playpen OR The Delirious Debut of Matthew Rankin
source: Oscilloscope Pictures

Well, fortunately for anyone interested in this curiouso of this year, The Twentieth Century is an immersive and woefully weird film odyssey that’s wholly committed to its playfully whacked-out otherness. It might seem like a purely stylistic exercise from the outset, and the filmmakers aren’t shy about their influences. Still, there’s a sincerity to the whole affair that elevates the film from “weird for weird’s sake” to an entertaining and original feature that is oh, so very Canadian.

The Great White North

Rankin uses the real Canadian politician William Lyon Mackenzie King and his ascension to the position of Prime Minister as a springboard for a full-tilt dive into a hallucinatory comic narrative that uses shrewdly assembled devices of cinematic artifice and a level of aesthetic playfulness that is so loaded it veers on being a little mad, but, don’t we like our art a little mad?

The Twentieth Century: Canadian History as a Heady Playpen OR The Delirious Debut of Matthew Rankin
source: Oscilloscope Pictures


The story interweaves surreal flourishes throughout to illustrate King’s rise to power as a wildly satirical sendup of political ceremonies, masculine ritualism, cultural elitism, and gender normative conventions, for the most part.
It’s a fine line that Rankin walks in that The Twentieth Century is evocative of so many films, filmmakers, styles, genres, and time periods, and yet the final product arrives with its own distinctive tone. What could have been a derivative foray into all things seen before Rankin pulls a rabbit out of the hat and treats us to a modicum of imagery that truly embodies what we know as movie magic. The well of inspiration ranges from the like of Georges Méliès, Karel Zeman, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Bertrand Mandico, Yann Gonzalez, William Dieterle, Jean Cocteau, John Waters, Luis Buñuel, fellow Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, and various alumni of the German Expressionism movement. Tired yet? It might sound like this young director is throwing everything at the wall, and if he is, everything that he chucks into his cinematic imagination that is this production, seems to stick, so more power to him.

 Political Ceremony and Masculinity Get a Makeover

Every frame of this film is teeming with an aura of ribald artifice. At times we’re reminded of the melodramatic romanticism of classic Hollywood films, the scene where King (played with boyish aplomb by Dan Beirne) waves to his departing love interest as she’s waving from the stern of an ocean liner comes to mind. Other junctures steer into an incomparable atmosphere of zany tomfoolery as King embarks on the path to becoming Prime Minister and, in order to do so, must-win varied feats of strength competition that’s a deliriously silly whirlwind of masculine sendups that ape Canadian traditions and mores.

The Twentieth Century: Canadian History as a Heady Playpen OR The Delirious Debut of Matthew Rankin
source: Oscilloscope Pictures

He’s at odds with obvious adversary Arthur Meighan (Brent Skagford) and the upstanding square-jawed wonderboy Bert Harper (Mikhaïl Ahooja) from tasks as goofily banal as ribbon-cutting to the more “daunting” leg wrestling, penmanship via snow peeing, and of course, seal clubbing (don’t worry, they’re stuffed animals). It’s boyishly gleeful, and Rankin’s delirious and homoerotic absurdity finagles a vision that’s drunk on its own visual indulgence but succeeds thanks to its inspiration and earnestness.


The Twentieth Century proves that contemporary cinema still has an appetite for sweeping portions of unparalleled imagination and humor. Just as Robert Eggers has proven to be the chosen voice to carry on the specific tradition of ol’ timey New England folksy horror, Robert Rankin might be destined to carry the banner as the foremost purveyor of madcap Canadian mysticism, thank goodness.

The Twentieth Century was released in the US on November 20th, 2020.

What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below!

Watch The Twentieth Century

Powered by JustWatch


Does content like this matter to you?

Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Similar Posts